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!