Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Album of the Year (as well as some actually meaningful honors) for its concept album, The Suburbs, a surprisingly noncondemning look at the emotional highs and lows of a type of place usually portrayed as a repressive hellscape full of sellouts and hypocrites, a la American Beauty. But just as even North America's indie-rock bands warm up to suburbia, the economic realities of the 21st century might finally end the weed-like growth of developments and subdivisions.
A Brookings Institution study of the 2010 U.S. Census shows that, even though more than 50 percent of Americans still live in a suburb, the population growth in those areas is slowing and cities are growing at nearly the same rates as their outlining areas, both for the first time in years.
Suburbanization had been a brisk trend since the 1950s. It was sparked by cheap gas, a middle class able to afford homeownership and, undeniably, white flight in response to desegregation. Given that the housing crisis and related recession are irreversibly narrowing the number of people who can buy and keep a house, gas is near $4 a gallon and whites appear comfortable enough with minorities to elect one president, there are fewer reasons to abandon the cities for the land of strip malls and Whole Foods stores.
The suburbs recently found an unlikely defender in William Upski Wimsatt, the writer/activist/graffiti artist who, at 21, wrote the 1994 manifesto Bomb the Suburbs, which called for hip-hop culture to overtake mainstream political complacency. (“Bomb” is a graffiti term for tag.) Influenced by a dip into the mainstream via a stint in the Obama campaign, Wimsatt did a U-turn with Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs, a book arguing liberals should embrace the suburbs; they are now filled with “culinary and cultural hot spots,” their denizens are as progressive as city dwellers and one-third of them are minorities.
Wimsatt is missing the point. It was never the lack of coffee bars, MoveOn.org meetups and not-white people that made suburbanization a scourge to progressives. The infrastructure of the suburbs — with spread-out homesteads and a dependency on cars — burns up resources and advances the right-wing politics of selfishness. Shared resources — like public transportation and even sidewalks — are rarely used and underfunded, if they even exist.
Note I said suburbanization, not the suburbs themselves, is the problem. A place like Westport or Branford can be OK for certain people, but the trend by which a majority of Americans live in places so decentralized requires us to balance our economy on fuel prices and home loans. Obviously, this has proven unsustainable.
It's understandable why a majority wants to dodge urban areas. Cities can be grim. Connecticut's two largest, Bridgeport and Hartford, have corrupt political cultures, seas of abandoned buildings and development stagnation to such an extent it's a challenge to get grocery stores downtown.
For this, too, I blame suburbanization. The fact that almost all people with any political or economic clout are suburbanites not only drains money from other geographical areas but puts consumerism at the top of the national agenda. America is keeping up tax cuts for individuals and corporations at the expenses of deficit reduction, investment in development and basic improvement to worn-out roads and bridges. Might this be because a majority of us live a lifestyle where we spend most of our time looking out on our own yards, swimming in our own pools and commuting in our own cars?
Social engineering isn't needed to erode suburbanization. Just the opposite — a dose of reality — will do the trick. The bursting of the housing bubble and the current fuel crisis show that a place in suburbia is just another stupid thing we can't afford, but buy anyway.