Are suburbs dying or regenerating?

There’s been a lot of chatter the last few years about the end of the suburbs, instigated especially by journalists but pulling in academics too.  Probably the splashiest declaration came from Fortune magazine’s Leigh Gallagher, who titled her book The End of the Suburbs, an apocalyptic eye-catcher if there ever was one.  It’s interesting how it’s Fortune magazine editors who — over the years — have made some of the boldest, most sensational proclamations about suburbia.  It was Fortune editor William Whyte who in 1956 painted suburbanites as “organization men” who socialized hyperactively but lacked self-directed individuality, threatening the very soul of America.  Gallagher, in turn, sees suburbia at its end point, indicated by an emergent generational rejection of the form as well as the many wasteful, inefficiencies of suburbia itself.

As my suburban writing partner Andy Wiese points out, we’re seeing a repeating pattern here.  It’s the journalists who write — as they are paid to do — total oversimplifications of major social trends and then academics provide critiques along the lines of:  “it’s a little more complicated than that…”  Chris Sellers lodged such a critique a couple years ago at New Geography.  And we’re doing it in our forthcoming second edition of The Suburb Reader (Routledge, 2016).  One irony (or not) that we’ve noticed:  how is it that at the very moment suburbs have hit unprecedented levels of diversification — by class, race, ethnicity, family type, politics etc. — that people are declaring suburbia’s end?  Will “suburb” forever be tied up emotionally and intellectually to the white upper- and middle-class, and our minds and spirits cannot for the life of them make room for alternative realities?

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These are questions we’ll be exploring at the SACRPH conference this week. And here’s a snippet from the preface to our forthcoming Suburb Reader 2nd Ed. which reflects some of our thoughts on this, and the thrust of our book:

“Since 2006, American suburbs experienced devastating decline and encouraging regeneration. The Great Recession (2007-2009) had deep roots in suburbia, begun with the housing boom-and-bust that concentrated in suburban communities where many homeowners rode a nauseating roller coaster from American dream to fiscal ruin.   The devastation wrought by the housing bust triggered a frenzied conversation about the viability of suburbs, even their very legitimacy. Is home ownership an obsolete, destructive aspiration, many asked? Should we do away with institutions like Fannie Mae and the FHA which supported suburban home ownership for generations? Folding in concerns about climate change and sustainability, public health, and community life, many critics attacked suburbia as a dead end, anathema to contemporary values and resources. Some declared an end to suburbia, sensing a fundamental national rejection of the suburban form itself.

At the same time, some suburbs were changing radically. New groups of people – many previously the targets of suburban exclusion – were settling in suburban homes and apartments, refashioning the feel and lived realities of these neighborhoods. Immigrants, the poor, more and more people of color arrived, remaking their communities and often bringing new vitality – not to mention new values and politics – to America’s suburbs. The energy of this influx signals to us that the suburbs are not dying. They are, instead, in a fascinating period of regeneration and redefinition, an era when suburban history is being rewritten in profound ways. And at the same time that many suburbs are upending traditional expectations, they exist alongside many, many suburbs across the nation touched lightly by historical change, persisting much as they have for decades. The suburban dream survives. And so do suburbia’s limits, its possibilities, and its challenges.

Our perspective has been deeply shaped by recent events, and the many signs of suburban crisis and rejuvenation around us. In our home region of southern California, these trends are especially vivid. We see it in places like the Inland Empire where housing foreclosures hit national highs. We see it in the Chicano poets performing in a “garage salon” in the working-class suburb of Bell, or the new citizens mobilized against anti-immigrant politics in the citrus belt suburb of Escondido. We measure the ups and downs against our own experience with traffic, schools, housing prices, land consumption, local politics, changes in family and community. Amidst the hassles and the hardships, we discern hopeful currents of adaptation and change in America’s suburbs.”

We look forward to continuing the conversation.

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