It’s time to rethink the term “suburban vote”

To all those political pundits out there who keep tossing around the phrase “suburban vote,” it’s time to pause and think.  If by “suburban” you mean white, middle-class straight families, you are missing the boat.  That demographic represents a shrinking segment of actual suburban dwellers.

The reality is a lot more diverse and complex, something like America itself.  To suggest that “suburban” signifies a certain political agenda or set of needs and values, is to oversimplify today’s suburban realities.

Take the class thing, for example.  Suburbia might still be associated in many people’s minds with successful families living in homes they own, and enjoying a measure of stability and comfort.  But in truth, poverty has moved into suburbia in a big way.  As researchers like Elizabeth Kneebone, Alan Berube, Peter Dreier and others have shown, poor people represent one of the fastest growing demographics in the suburbs.  During the 2000s, more poor people lived in suburbs than in cities for the first time, and by 2010, 55 percent of the metropolitan poor lived in suburbs, while one in three poor Americans overall lived in the suburbs.  What, then, does their “suburban vote” signify?  They are a constituency with needs like affordable housing, health clinics, adequate public transportation, and a range of public services.  In the suburban environment itself – not exactly set up to serve many of these needs – delivering these sorts of services becomes an enormous challenge.

And how about the white thing?  For decades, the suburbs have been associated with white privilege, white intergenerational wealth, and white cultural values.  That too has changed dramatically.  These white suburban areas continue to exist in some quarters, no question. But they are being joined by and – in some cases – racially and ethnically diluted by immigrants, ethnics, and African Americans, who are creating new “melting pot” suburbs.  Consider these numbers.  In 1970,  just under 10 percent of all suburbanites were  “minorities” (that is, African American, Asian American and Latino).  By 2010, the number jumped to 28 percent.  It’s even more strking from another angle.  Among all African Americans, 39 percent lived in the suburbs as of 2010.  And those proportions were even higher for Latinos and Asians: nationally, 46 percent of Latinos and 48 percent of Asians lived in the suburbs as of 2010.  And in the largest 100 metro areas, the numbers were even higher – 62 percent of Asian Americans and 59 percent of Latinos.  So we’re talking somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of all Latinos, Asians, and African Americans who call the suburbs “home.”

The immigrant story is even more striking.  The typical trajectory for the majority of immigrants these days is to move not to some urban ethnic enclave, but rather straight to the suburbs.  In 2013, half of all immigrants lived in the suburbs, and that proportion was even higher in the largest metro areas where most immigrants live.

What, then, does the “suburban vote” signify?  The values of Black Lives Matter in a suburb like Ferguson?  The protection of multi-million dollar real estate investment for Chinese immigrants in San Marino, Ca.?  A demand for immigrant rights in a working-class Latino suburb like Maywood, Ca.?  It represents all of these things, and much more.

 

In a lot of ways, suburbia now houses profound variations in the American experience itself.  It encompasses wealth inequality – the very rich and the very poor, along with a shrinking middle-class.  It reflects a kalaidescope of racial and ethnic identities. It houses different family types and age brackets, including young singles, empty nesters, the elderly, same-sex couples with kids, single parents with kids, extended families.  By 2010, 75 percent of suburban homes did not contain a married-couple family with kids.  These social realities ought to explode – once and for all – that outworn myth of good ol’ June & Ward Cleaver living out their white suburban dream. And maybe even that spectre of the “soccer mom.”

So how, then, could the phrase “suburban vote” possibly signify anything resembling a coherent bloc?

For some time, the “suburban vote” signified that volatile middle of American politics that could easily swing either way. It was a bipartisan phenom, encompassing both conservatives and liberals who shared a common set of “suburban” values like homeowner entitlements, law and order, low taxes, and the like.  As suburbia has expanded to gargantuan levels – now housing 51 percent of all Americans – that political “center of gravity” is swinging and swaying, toppling from one side to the other, thrown off kilter by agendas and concerns that may exist more on the political edges and reflect an enormous range of perspectives.

Even recent presidential elections have telegraphed these changes.  When George W. Bush won in 2004, the crucial “suburban voters” who helped put him over the top lived in the fast-growing exurbs, which typically remained the whitest.  Although not necessarily the most prosperous, these exurbs housed upwardly striving young families with kids seeking affordable homes, and the only place they could afford them was in the far suburban fringe, where “drive-til-you-qualify” subdivisions were spreading rapidly and providing refuge from high taxes and social diversity.  In some cases, these were the same communities hit hard during the foreclosure crisis.

When Obama won election in 2008 and 2012, by contrast, it was the inner suburbs that helped push him to victory.  In these older suburbs, residents tended to be more diverse ethnically, racially, and even socio-economically, and were definitely more left leaning.  This “suburban vote” signified something much different than the one that helped elect George W. Bush. Some pundits in 2014 predicted that “To win the White House in 2016, Republicans must retain their exurban and rural strongholds, while beating back the growing Democratic tide in the [inner] suburbs…”  But few voices now seem to be parsing out these subtleties.

Especially as the election is moving into that heated final stretch, I fear we’re going to see political commentators, pollsters, and pundits throwing the “suburban vote” phrase around too carelessly, without realizing the intensive variation that rubric embraces. Even in yesterday’s column by Cathleen Decker, one of my favorite political analysts here in L.A., she wrote that Clinton and Trump have been “tussling over suburbanites who usually lean Republican.”

Rather than fall back upon these outworn images of the burbs, it’s time the pundits learn a thing or two about what’s actually happening in the suburbs.   Even better, I’d rather hear some talk about how the candidates plan to improve life in the suburbs – for the incredibly rich array of people who now live in them, that 51 percent of Americans.  Some policy talk – beyond Trump’s remark that the foreclosure crisis was a good business opportunity – would be way more welcome than some glib reference to the “suburban vote.”

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WIMBYs vs. NIMBYs

I took a trip to Atlanta a couple of weeks ago, my first time in that Southern metropolis that plays such a key role in our understanding of suburban history. Historians like Kevin Kruse and Matt Lassiter wrote excellent books about Atlanta and the ways that suburbia spawned a politics of homeowner entitlement, segregation, privatization, and the careers of people like Newt Gingrich.  So when I got an invitation to speak at a symposium at Georgia Tech, I jumped at the opportunity not only to connect with old and new friends, but to experience Atlanta first hand, finally.

The symposium was great.  I absorbed much about the over-powering dynamics of black-white relations in the city, such a contrast with life in my hometown L.A. As it has for decades, Atlanta still retains a segregated geography of white north and black south, although immigrants are mixing up the picture in some suburbs on Atlanta’s northside.  In my own talk, I hammered home the theme of suburban diversity since 1970 – I live it, see it, and study it intensively in Los Angeles, and we’ve highlighted this as a national phenomenon in our book The Suburb Reader (2nd ed. coming out this month, finally!)

But in Atlanta, I soon realized, old suburban assumptions die hard.  And I found myself in an alternate reality that’s probably a lot more pervasive than I realized, living in my L.A. bubble of multiculturalism.  A reality where “the suburbs” is frozen in meaning, as a place that’s white, conservative, and imbued with the smell and spirit of Newt Gingrich.

I discovered this not at the symposium, but the next day, when I got to see a bit of Atlanta with my old college roommate from USC, Beate.  She picked me up, and we spent the day exploring the “Sweet Auburn” neighborhood, birthplace of Martin Luther King and for years the heart of Atlanta’s segregated African American community.  It was a beautifully preserved district, and the experience was quite moving.  The weather was perfect, the southern food heavy and delicious.

After “Sweet Auburn,” we headed a few miles east toward Decatur, Beate’s home town neighborhood.  Now when I first laid eyes on Decatur, I immediately considered the place a suburb.  It had peaceful tree-lined streets, single-family homes with lush yards, and a quiet, domestic feel.  Beate, an accomplished photographer, took some photos of  Decatur’s streetscapes.

 

To me, the suburban identity of this neighborhood was a given. It was my gut reaction to the place itself – the homes, yards, trees, all the usual visual cues.

Then I started talking to people who lived there.  They said things like,”Decatur isn’t a suburb.”  “The suburbs are to the north.”  That meant places like Cobb, Gwinnnett, and northern Fulton Counties, places like Buckhead. “We don’t live in the suburbs, this is different here.” They clearly saw themselves as a place apart. They wanted no association with “suburb” which in Atlanta had a fierce, firm association with the political conservatives of the segregated northern counties.  In Atlanta, the word “suburb” had been hijacked by Newt Gingrich and his ilk.  And to associate yourself with “suburb” meant something quite political, racial, and conservative.  Something where NIMBYism was applied not only to ugly dump sites but to a particular kind of people. Suburbia was essentially a conservative, Republican, racist, segregationist, privatized, vanilla landscape.

In Decatur, it was different.  There, the residents are mostly white, middle and upper-middle class, well educated, and liberal.  And they despise any association with the Gingrich suburbs.  They worry about the gentrifying effects they’ve had on the area, and the exodus of blacks from what was once a racially diverse town.   They want the diversity.  They are the WIMBYs – the “welcome-into-my-backyard” kind of people, who envision an inclusive, tolerant, mixed, liberal sort of community where children can grow up imbued with progressive values.  In their minds, this has nothing to do with “suburb.”  At least, not the Atlanta version of the word.

I love the word WIMBY, which I  saw for the first time on Bill Rankin’s radical cartography website.  It captures a different kind of suburban reality.  These are suburban places populated by liberals and progressives.  And in places like Decatur, and along Boston’s Route 128 corridor that Lily Geismer writes about, they see themselves in – but not of – the suburbs.  They’re somehow apart from the odious baggage that “suburb” still represents in the minds of many people.  In WIMBY places, neighbors crave the ethnic and racial diversity (class diversity, not so much).  It’s a value.  It’s an ideal.

Dare I say, a suburban ideal.

In places like Atlanta, the word “suburb” continues to connote a powerful, bifurcated image of metropolitan space, frozen into that “chocolate city, vanilla suburb” divide.  Maybe L.A. will help thaw things out.  Help us see that “suburb” can actually describe spaces that represent alternative value systems, multiracial spaces, and communities of justice.  It’s happening here.  Suburbia is becoming dislodged from that discursive straight-jacket.  And it’s coming to represent a space of incredible richness and variation.

Maybe it’ll remain a kind of regional thing, the ways we think about what “suburb” means and what it can mean.  In my talk at Georgia Tech, I closed out with this thought:  that rising suburban diversity may be a hopeful sign that suburbs actually have a future where they move from being a part of the problem to a part of the solution.

In the meantime, Atlantans, it’s time to hijack that word back!

 

 

Fear and loathing in diverse suburbia

Last week, I fell into the vortex of suburban fear.

There was a pair of shootings on the other side of town, that left one man dead.  The neighborhood discussion boards went bonkers, residents voicing all kinds of opinions and fears – it was the fault of renters, it was the fault of inequality and low-paid work which forces people into desperation, it was a call to action for a community response.  Then, the home across the street from us was burglarized.  In the 45 years our neighbors have lived here, they told me, this was the first time this sort of thing had ever happened.

Something was simmering, a feeling of desperation maybe. It unsettled my sense of calm and confidence in our neighborhood.  Our suburb and maybe even my home, all of a sudden, felt threatened.

So I did what all fearing suburbanites do.  I fixed the locks and secured the gates around the perimeter of our home.  And then I called a home security company.  They sent their guy out.  But what this unsuspecting salesman didn’t realize is that he’d be dealing with me – a person who thinks A LOT (and even writes about) the idea of suburban fear, community, and social well-being. When he launched into his usual schpiel about all the crime and threats out there – and I recoiled slightly – he seemed to pick up on it and dialed it down.  I’m not a security freak, I wanted to tell him, I don’t even like that I’ve called you.  But I shut up and let him do his inspection, to identify all of the unsecure portals of our house, all of the ways someone could break and enter into our domestic peace.

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Then like a wrecking ball, a series of articles appeared in my in-box on how resegregation is plaguing more and more diverse suburbs. This struck home.  We live in a diverse suburb in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. As of 2010, it was 40.3 percent white, 26.9 percent Latino, 23.7 percent black, and 5.4 percent Asian.  While the majority of households are families with kids, nearly 50 percent of households have one parent or a single person in charge.  About 72 percent of residents are homeowners, 28 percent renters. And 11 percent of the population lives in poverty (including 12 percent of local children).  Our suburb has achieved stable racial diversity in this profile. But it is a town of haves and have nots.

Myron Orfield’s eye-opening work on resegregation in diversifying suburbia, put into some context what I’m living here right now.  He noted, first, that 44 percent of American suburbanites in fact live in racially integrated suburbs – this is an astounding statistic right off the bat.  And he noted that for the most part, “This is where race relations in the United States are the best. . . . They are maybe the closest thing that there is to the beloved community that Martin Luther King was talking about.”  But he went on to decry the persistence of housing discrimination – through practices like racial steering, mortgage lending discrimination, and the shenanigans of the “poverty housing industry” – which ultimately perpetuates patterns of segregation in and across suburbia. He ultimately calls for metro-wide solutions that ensure across-the-board equity – in terms of the benefits and burdens of metropolitan life, like where affordable housing is located and how taxes get distributed – to snuff out those escape-hatch suburban islands that hoarde wealth, resources, and remain hyper-segregated.  His is a macro perspective on things.

But here we are, back in my suburban town, where the integration is in place and we’re trying to figure this all out.  From my unscientific perspective on things, the segregation has happened at the micro-level too.  Yes, we have ethnically and racially diverse neighbors, but the class divisions are pretty stark.  It’s most evident in the school system that segregrates public and  private school families – a deep and profound class divider if there ever was one – that has the effect of fragmenting a sense of community unity.  And it’s happened in the social geography of neighborhoods, where roughly speaking, certain areas are deemed “safe,” others not so much.  But even in those marginal areas, there’s a fair amount of race and class mixing.  You can’t help that in a metro area like Los Angeles, where out-sized housing prices means even the “poorer” areas boast ridiculous rents and home values.  There’s a fiscal squeeze on everyone, and it’s surely put extra pressure on low-income residents struggling to survive in this ridiculous housing market.

Our particular town is unincorporated, and from what long-time residents here tell me, it’s always been a real attraction to the quirky, libertarian-minded folks who gravitate to this area – who don’t want the hassle and interference of local government.  But when you mix together the lack of a true civic hub – a meaningful center of local governance – with the fragile dynamics of diversifying suburbia, the end result can be total fragmentation and community alienation. We don’t have the forums and venues for total community interaction, the sense of a shared, unified fate.  Everyone goes off in their own direction.  Our kids travel a dizzying array of separate routes.  And it makes falling into defensive mode, a sort of easy response when things get dicey.

I’m trying to fight this, in my own small way.  I’m talking to people.  I go to what local meetings I can.  And I have yet to call that guy back about installing a security system in our home.  Mind you, I still have his estimate right near our phone.  I just hope I can somehow restore that sense of calm and confidence in our town, so I don’t have to make that call.

Our 4-legged social ambassadors

On Christmas night up here on our foothill cul-de-sac, we had weather. It wasn’t that snowy kind of weather we fantasize about in L.A. around the holidays. It was windy and blustery, leaves flying madly, door slamming shut, and a chill blowing into your bones if you stepped outside without the right outerwear.

We finished our “traditional” English Christmas dinner of standing rib roast, yorkshire pudding, baby peas, and roasted potatoes — which my Greek mother had taught me to cook — we’d opened gifts, and then gorged on English trifle, which I’d saturated with a little too much sherry.  And then it was time for my 16-year-old niece to drive herself home.  I opened the front door to a whoosh and chill, and my daughter and I walked her up to her car, carrying bags of presents and plastic containers of leftovers.

As we approached the car, a stray dog caught our attention. He was bounding around in the middle of the street — very near the spot where our own dog was struck by a car a few years earlier, a space that made me nervous whenever I saw it occupied by an animal or child.  My daughter grabbed him by the collar, he looked disoriented and stressed as the wind blustered.  My niece drove off, and we led the dog into our house.

The dog looked a little unfamiliar to us. We read his dog tag, then called the phone number.  It was the voice mail of our across-the-street neighbors. Of course, I thought. We don’t see them much and the dog is usually fenced off in their backyard. But the wind had blown their gate open and the dog got out. And no one was home. We have our own dog, who’s adorably sweet to humans but absolutely obnoxious to other canines, so we locked ours in the back rooms. But now we had an unexpected Christmas guest.

I left a message on their voice mail. My husband, meanwhile, wrote a note to tape on their front door just in case they didn’t notice their land-line message (who checks those anymore?).  As he made his way to their house — bundled up against the cold wind — he was met by a couple of teenagers who had just pulled into their driveway, frantically looking for the dog.  They were the housesitters.  And they were hugely relieved to know we had the dog.

Over a brief two-week span around the holidays, I was struck by how the dogs in our immediate suburban hub were connecting the neighbors.  They made us open doors.  They impelled neighborly phone calls.  They broke down social barriers, inducing new interactions and connections.  They became a kind of admission ticket to new social intimacy with our neighbors, allowing us to circulate through one anothers’ homes for the first time, crossing that rubicon from exterior to interior, glimpsing what lay behind those closed front doors.

My son, for instance, dog sat for our next door neighbors when they left town.  The needs of the dogs inspired a kind of neighborly trust, where they felt confident enough to turn their home over to someone they didn’t know that well, an act that ultimately help pull us closer together as families.

And when it was our turn to leave town, we reached out to neighbors we knew only in the most passing way, a couple a few doors down who we knew loved dogs.  My husband — the dog walker in our family — knew them through those brief encounters on the street, when they were out with their own dog.  He learned their dog was sick.  Then we stopped seeing their dog at all.

I have to confess I’d never had a real conversation with these neighbors in the eight years we’ve lived here.  My husband had, and he conveyed to me what he knew about them.  She was a preschool teacher.  Her partner was perfectly nice.  We’d missed seeing them at a few neighborhood gatherings.  I’d say “hi” on the street, but that was it.

So when we were scrambling to find a dog-sitter after Christmas, we thought they’d be perfect.  We knew our dog loved them, from their interactions on the street.  They said yes.  And a social relationship took a small step forward.  I was thrilled finally to be connecting with them, to have them in our home, and to feel the trust of giving them our key.  After we returned home, we met them on the street.  It was a tender moment.   We laughed at their stories.  And when they began to leave, our dog tried to follow them home, quite ready to relinquish us and move in with them, the couple who had doted on him for those few glorious days we were gone.  When we held him back and his tail drooped, we got that message loud and clear.

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Dogs play a fascinating role in the social dynamic of suburbia. The anthropolgist Scott Vandehey writes about how a suburban resident’s obligation to clean up after one’s dog — among a number of other community obligations — represents  a facet of suburban citizenship, where residents display a set of rights-claims “based around maintenance of a perceived ideal lifestyle.”  This entails the duty to maintain clean, safe, healthy neighborhoods, an inclination toward NIMBYism, as well as a sense of belonging to a community.  While Vandehey tends to emphasize the obligatory aspects of dog ownership — especially the duties to keep dogs contained (on leashes) and to clean up after them —  a more positive social dimension seems alive and well in our corner of suburbia.

After the holidays passed, I pulled up to our house one morning and noticed a spash of pink on our front porch.  I approached the front door and found a lush hydrangea, left with a note:  “Thank you for rescuing our silly dog.”  It was a gesture that made me appreciate the ways our dogs have helped thicken neighborly bonds and build trust.   It’s not always a perfect dynamic, but right now I’m appreciating the goodness that’s coming out of our dog days.

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Suburbia and terror

Back on December 2, as I was putting the finishing touches on my last blog post, little did I realize the horror that was unfolding about 50 miles due west of my little office here.  That was the day of the San Bernardino shootings.

I have to admit that since that day, I had a really hard time getting my head back into “creative mode,” especially with this blog.  What could I possibly have to say about this, that hasn’t already been said?  And what pain anxiety, sadness, and unease I was feeling, could possibly be any more meaningful that what many, many others were feeling?   I found myself reading obsessively about it in the LA Times, trying to figure out what could have motivated the shooters, that might somehow make sense to me.  Well, I came up with nothing.  I can’t fathom it from my own existential perspective.  And much as I wanted to dive back into the blog on a positive note, it seemed plain wrong to say nothing about it.  So here goes.

With the passage of nearly a month, the sadness and horror has subsided a little, and it’s given me a chance to think about how this — and previous shootings — could possibly link up with suburbia.  My unsettling conclusion is that the suburbs have shifted from a peripheral safe refuge to a center of the action, when it comes to terror.

Consider this.  In the 1950s, when postwar suburbs were spreading like wildfire across the country, national policy makers perceived them in strategic terms, a kind of defensive built landscape in the context of the Cold War.  It wasn’t just the bomb shelters that people were building in their backyards.  It was the sprawl itself that seemed to promise protection.  How much damage could a Soviet-launched nuclear bomb do if everyone was spread out not just within metro areas, but across the country? (a lot, in my opinion, but that was their mindset)  This was part of the thinking behind the 1956 Interstate Highway Act.  As Ken Jackson noted in Crabgrass Frontier, the Bulletin of  the Atomic Scientists devoted a whole issue in 1951 to “Defense through Decentralization.”  The thinking went something like this:  you avoid national destruction in a nuclear attack if you spread everyone out, dispersing people out of large cities and into satellite cities surrounded by miles and miles of suburbs.  Sprawl was the ultimate defense mechanism against the terror threats of the time.  Michael Sorkin, in All Over the Map, similarly called these postwar suburbs a product of “an earlier fear of terror.”

Well, obviously as the terror threats shifted, so did the role of built environments in the calculus of safety itself.  Suburbia has moved from peripherpy to somewhere near the center.  Suburbia has become a critical part of the terror story — as a site of the horrific acts themselves, but also as the place where shooting schemes were hatched and planned.  Suburbia is full of soft targets, the schools, shopping malls, office parks, and the like.  Remember Columbine back in the 1990s, when two kids shot up a high school in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver? Writer Christopher Caldwell blamed that attack partly on the alienating, “soul destroying” landscape of ticky-tacky Littleton.  Yet other types of suburbs have also been linked to terrorism, places like Molenbeek outside of Brussels, an impoverished,  immigrant suburb which the media reported was a launch pad for the Paris shootings.  And then there’s San Bernardino in the Inland Empire, a satellite city with  numerous suburban neighborhoods, which not too long ago was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis.  The city itself went bankrupt, and thousands of people lost homes to foreclosure.  It’s a place with its share of recent travails, a vivid symbol of a changing suburbia.

Yet there is no easy correlation between shooters and the type of suburbs where they lived, schemed, and acted – some have been well-off, others poor.  All that seems clear is that suburbia’s very diversity makes it home to a broad range of humanity – the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the engaged and disaffected, including those who would terrorize.

Suburbia, sadly, has caught up to cities — full of vulnerable places where people gather and disaffected residents live holed away in condos and homes — in this disturbing story.  It’s sad to me that these “soft targets” are exactly the kinds of places that urban designer and scholars have been working so hard to revive and nurture in the suburbs, the places where people might come together and break down the walls of fear that some believe built suburbia itself.

The impulses are right, to break down those walls.  It just takes more courage in all of us to stick by this mantra, and to believe that ultimately it is this very connectivity that might ultimately redeem and save us.

 

 

 

 

Staying home, forever

Here’s an image I’ll always carry in my head:  my mom, sitting back in her recliner, relaxed and centered, gazing out the long tall window in the back of her home that looked out onto the hill that sloped upward just a few feet from that window.  It was nature, green and a little wild, right at hand.  My mom was in deep communion with that nature in those quiet moments.  Her spirit was replenished.

That soulful sustenance seemed to emit from many aspects of that house.  My mom loved her home profoundly. It was the home my brothers and I grew up in.  We moved there in the mid-1960s, just as our house and the whole hilly subdivision around it was being constructed.  We were a Greek American family, living in modest comfort, my father puttering to his job everyday at USC Med School as a research chemist, my mom staying home with the kids.  That home swaddled us.  For my mom, the home was an extension of our family, a kind of sturdy vessel of the emotions, love, and life that swirled within its spaces year after year.  It was thick with memories.

So after my father died in 1988, my mom stayed.  Her grown kids cycled through at various times, occupying the empty bedrooms, spreading out our junk for whatever interim time we needed there — to shelter us during periods of unemployment, dissertation writing, etc.  When we all finally left after getting jobs and getting married, my mom stayed. And she grew older, making do alone in that large home. She tended lovingly to her lush potted plants in the back, lined up along a buckling cinder-block retaining wall that her brother had built 3 decades earlier.  She cooked simple meals for herself, the food of her childhood in Greece – okra with fresh tomatoes and onions, leek stew,  pastas, green beans.  She read, gazed outside, dozed off, cheered Roger Federer on in his latest match, cooked us dinners. She hung ceramic angels from the ceiling over her bed, which acted as her own “security” system, helping her feel watched over and protected as she slept.

And she got by alone.  The house was pretty large, two stories with carpeted stairs, four smallish bedrooms upstairs.  When her knees started giving out, the stairs became a challenge.  Then the falls started.  If she fell, she couldn’t get up.  So she’d somehow crawl to the phone, and we’d get a call from her: “I fell down, can you come?”

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That house was too big for her own good.  At that point, when she was in her late 70s, we started working on her to move.  “Come move in with us,” I’d say, and she’d say, “okay” half-heartedly, no doubt dismayed by the prospect of joining our family chaos with two young, noisy kids.   Then she’d change the subject, or just say no, I don’t want to move.  I don’t want to be a burden.  I want to be independent. I love this house.

My mom was a great example of a trend that’s been unfolding for some time now – the process of aging-in-place in suburbia, which seems to be the preference for the vast majority of seniors already living in suburban homes.   For people like my mom, that raises some major challenges.  For her, I think the biggest one was the sheer isolation, being alone every day in that large detached structure.  Surrounded by the plants and trees she loved, yes, but cut off from the energy and vibrancy of other people on an everyday basis.  She could still drive, but that human interaction was a destination, not a part of her everyday existence.  My mom would never consent to moving to a retirement-type community, where she might get that interaction. It would be too much of a jolt to her spirit, an uprooting that would have withered her.  It would have been like losing her family.

She insisted on staying, and making the best of her familiar surroundings even as they stopped serving her well.  I love the work that people like June Williamson, Ellen Dunham-Jones, and others are doing on this very issue – they’re exploring the question: how can we retrofit these existing suburbs to better meet the needs of their aging residents?   June and Ellen’s work explores things like zoning revisions to allow for higher densities, repurposing defunct stores into health clinics, or even overlaying golf-cart pathways for seniors to get around more easily.

We also need more creative ways to bring life and companionship into the everyday-life of seniors through a more diffuse array of meeting places (rather than a single community Senior Center), but also through innovative living arrangements.  The trend toward senior co-housing communities is a great idea, though it’s just beginning.  It’s a creative alternative to assisted living or to aging-in-place in your old family home.  Here’s the concept, as described recently in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Most consist of small individual apartments or houses with large shared kitchens, dining rooms, terraces and gardens where neighbours willingly interact. For those who want the energy of the young, there are multi-generational communities that welcome families. For others who would rather splurge on yoga mats, elevators and respite suites than on playgrounds, certain developments are reserved for empty-nesters. They are planned, owned and managed by residents, not outsiders.

So in other words, you can still live a suburban life but in places built more mindfully to promote regular, healthy social interaction.  A group called Co-Housing is pushing for this now, and I hope it’s a harbinger of a spreading movement. I think we need more of this in all of our suburbs.

I wish my mom had this option a few years ago — I think she would have thrived.  She was a genuinely social person, full of warmth and bountiful hugs.  And yet, her end was probably exactly as she’d dreamt it.  She was lying in her bed, her angels floating over her, and she just went to sleep.  She passed exactly where she wanted to be:  in the home she loved fully and profoundly.

Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration

If you care about the suburbs — their health and future — I invite you to listen to a remakable discussion about American suburbia by some of the nation’s leading voices on suburban isssues.  It took place at a roundtable panel called “Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration” on November 7, 2015, at the the recent conference of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH).

I put this panel together along with Andrew Wiese, professor of history at San Diego State.  Andy and I recently wrapped up work on the 2nd edition of our edited book The Suburb Reader (Routledge, forthcoming 2016).  As we were in the home stretch of that work, we hatched the idea of bringing to life some of the ideas and perspectives from our book.  We invited in a kind of “dream team” of suburban experts to discuss and debate the past, present and future of American suburbs.

This is no small matter.  Suburbia is now home to over half of Americans.  It’s crucial that we discern a map for suburbia’s future that integrates economic and social justice, sustainability,  community health, and mindfulness about the emerging needs of new suburbanites like immigrants, the elderly and poor.  We explored questions like:  is there really a suburban crisis right now, as some  claim?  is that a racist construct?  how do we work toward making metropolitan areas more equitable, successful places, that promote decent living standards and opportunities for all?  what are the crucial policy choices at hand?  as suburban demography is changing — toward much greater diversity — how should suburbs adjust to  meet the needs of these diverse residents?   are Smart Growth and social justice compatible?   This is just a start to the issues and challenges we explored, in a free-flowing conversation, full of rich insights.

Andy and I moderated the discussion, and the participants included:

You can check out the audio of the entire conversation here:

I wanted to share just the first 15 minutes of a 90-minute conversation here.  My plan is to get the whole transcript published somewhere, but for now, check this out:

Andrew Wiese: Because this is a history conference, I thought we would start with a question about the future. Does suburbia have a future? And what does that future look like?

June Williamson: Maybe I’ll jump in here, as the architect and the author of a book called Designing Suburban Futures. I take a very optimistic stance. My research as an architect and urban designer is more case-study based, so you can find specific examples of parts of the suburban landscape – dead malls, strip centers, office parks – that have been vacated… and there have been some really creative retrofitting of these places. Turning them into mixed-use new organizations from single use, only retail, only office. So that paradigm – which comes down to single-use zoning – that has led to an obsolescence or a surplus of this land, is an opportunity. We turn the negative thing into a potential positive opportunity. There are ways in which design and creative thinking about design, and capturing the intellectual capital, and focusing on the suburbs – can help create this future. We can’t not have a suburban future, because more than half of the U.S. population lives there. It’s a fantasy to think that we’re all going to somehow migrate back to the cities. We have to imagine a broader idea of what a city is, that includes suburban places. So I advocate for design. Part of the issue here is people haven’t imagined or seen – they’re beginning to see more examples – but you’ve thought the suburban landscape, it’s built that way and it’s just going to stay that way. That’s just how it is. But we see lots of selective examples where it’s been intensified, retrofitted in a way by adding new uses, making them walkable. They are little fragments, but they do demonstrate a different potential future.  And there are things we don’t know about – what’s going to happen with cars, what’s going to happen with family structures.

Andrew Highsmith: Like you said, since over half of Americans live in suburbs, it’s really remarkable that you even have to ask that question. But you do, in light of the fact that these narratives of suburban decline, or suburban death, have become so common now. They’re really almost a genre. And that’s problematic I think. It’s troubling. It’s problematic because a majority of us live in them, and because it’s a narrative that revolves too narrowly around the experiences of white people. It’s remarkable that the kind of convergence of narratives of urban decline that took shape in the 1960s and 1970s… the narratives of “urban crisis” coalesce at a moment when people of color are first gaining majorities in major cities. And now, as people of color are gaining a foothold in suburbs, we’re also being faced with this new narrative of suburban crisis and death. So it’s problematic on that level, but on a number of others as well, in particular because it circumvents the fact that now a majority of immigrants are selecting suburbs as they choose places to live. It’s troubling to me that we even have to talk about this, but I think we do, in light of this flurry of books that have trumpeted the end of suburbia.

Andrew Wiese: would you say that narrative is fundamentally a racist narrative?

Andrew Highsmith: I don’t think it’s fundamentally a racist narrative, but I think it’s been deployed that way in many instances. Some of it is also aspirational, trying to speak to a lot of the different crises that are the result of mass suburbanization — things like infrastructure, live-ability, environmental concerns. I don’t think it necessarily has to be deployed in that way, but I think the way the discourse evolves popularly lends itself to that kind of reading.

Manuel Pastor: I would say the suburbs have a future, but the future ain’t what it used to be. So we really need to re-conceptualize it. I want to say two things about that. You know the suburbs were where the American dream was born and realized. This idea of single-family homes, the working-class being able to secure a toehold in the middle-class, which is what My Blue Heaven really is about. The idea of having some control over your destiny, good schools for your children, etc. It’s also the place where the American dream is now being shattered — through the foreclosure crisis, through degradation of the quality of life because of too much driving, because of the environmental toxics that have been left behind because so many suburbs (frankly in Los Angeles) were located proximate to industry and were built as industrial suburbs. So if we’re thinking about regaining the American dream in some sense – we can complicate that later because it was racist in its foundations as well, these suburbs – we do need to do it, not the least of which why because the suburbs are the swing districts in terms of national elections. That’s the place that’s purple. That’s the place where, if you can create a different identity, a different sense of destiny, you can actually move state politics, national politics, planning, and so much else. So they are really critical to the national future.

On the other hand, there’s really a challenge in the suburbs. Shortly after the events in Ferguson, the shooting of Michael Brown, I went to a meeting in New York about Ferguson, and I began my conversation by saying, “Well, imagine a small suburb with about 25,000 people right next to a big city, formed as part of a great industrial landscape, mostly white in its origins, having gone through dramatic demographic transformation, which now has a set of city agencies that essentially prey on their own people.” And then I stopped and said, “Of course, I’m talking about Maywood, California.” In Maywood, the city fathers/authorities began preying on the undocumented, through a series of fines, towing, etc. I think what it speaks to – and this is what is scary about this future – is that the suburbs are places where the civic infrastructure is really weak. People moved there to escape the politics of the city, and in some sense to escape civic life, at least in my view. They are places where the social services infrastructure is not ready for new immigrants, for the fact more of the nation’s poor live in the suburbs than they do in the cities now. The suburbs aren’t ready for that.

The suburbs are also a place where the community organizing infrastructure is really weak, which is how low-income communities try to find a voice and a toehold, in terms of civic life and gains in social services. That organizing infrastructure is also weak. So I think if that future of the suburbs is to be secure, some part of it is planning, physical landscape, etc., but a lot of it is going to be about community organizing, about building a social services infrastructure and building a civic infrastructure that could make them good places to live again.

Willow Lung Amam: …The suburban American dream, as Manuel was saying, was born out of the industrial city and escapism from city life. And I don’t think that kind of American dream around suburbs is still the reality of why most people are choosing suburbia, or at least the new suburbanites, why they are choosing suburbia. We need to have a more diverse conversation about what the American dream really represents, and how suburbia fits into this narrative. For many immigrants who are choosing suburbs as their first destination, that American dream looks a lot different than it did for the generation of working-class and white Americans who chose suburbs in the postwar era for very different reasons. I think there is some great research that needs to be done to really understand the complexities of the reasons why people are choosing suburbs.

I would also say that the story about Millennials not choosing suburbs is a bit overblown. Millennials are not “not choosing” suburbs. I teach undergraduate classes about cities. Most of my students who grew up in suburbs, when they tell their stories about where they want to live, they still want to live in suburbs. I don’t think that Millennials are not choosing suburbs, they are choosing different kinds of lifestyles, and suburbs are increasingly coming to adapt to the kind of preferences that we are seeing, for more walkable urban-like places that June referred to. So I don’t think the Millennial “return-to-the-city” narrative is complete in the ways in which we’re understanding a new set of values that this generation represents.

… Suburbs not only have a future here, but suburban development and suburban values are also translating overseas, so we have a transnational suburbanism that is really important to take into account in the ways in which the suburbs are growing not only internally in the US, but also abroad.

Stay tuned for more details about this excellent conversation!