Suburban Legends

Jason Diamond’s The Sprawl is a useful reminder that there is no single story to tell about the American suburbs.

Nora Caplan-Bricker
December 14, 2020
A glowing strip mall. Photo via Shutterstock

Discussed in this essay: The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs, by Jason Diamond. Coffee House Press, 2020. 256 pages.

NEVER LET A GOOD CRISIS go to waste, Winston Churchill supposedly said; good advice, regardless of the source. As Covid-19 has wreaked havoc worldwide, 2020 has also produced a gathering wave of progressive action in the United States: rent strikes, labor organizing, and, most powerfully, an unprecedented uprising against white supremacist police violence and the racism that infects this country, root to stem. But the pandemic has also created private opportunities for people with the means to build a more comfortable life raft. Seizing the moment can mean coming together with others—in protests, marches, mutual aid networks—or it can mean securing oneself a place apart. A house in the suburbs, for example. 

Until now, millennials and older members of Generation Z have gravitated toward cities and stayed there. But now many of the jobs that tethered white-collar workers to urban centers have moved online for the foreseeable future, as have the rich social and cultural worlds that once sweetened the raw deal of exorbitant rent. For people already questioning the future in untenably expensive cities, the pandemic may have simplified an intractable calculus. In a May poll, almost 40% of urban residents said they were considering heading somewhere greener. In June, as the pandemic wore on, The Wall Street Journal reported that Americans were relocating at an elevated rate. Not everyone who trades a cramped apartment for a house with a yard will come back.

Might this private exodus threaten a moment of public possibility? The political conservatism of American suburbs seems embedded in their very design. In the 1940s and ’50s, planned communities were built with government subsidies that stipulated a ban on sales to Black homeowners; in the ’60s and ’70s, these new towns attracted white families intent on evading desegregation campaigns. Today, wealthy suburbs remain incubators of inequality, places where preexisting advantage compounds beyond the reach of redistributionist policy. 

There is no single story to tell about suburbs—the places where roughly half of Americans live—and no way to know what may come of a new generation making its home there.

But suburbs can’t be reduced to the worst of what they represent, as the Brooklyn-based writer Jason Diamond argues in his new book, The Sprawl. For Diamond, the author of Searching for John Hughes (an appreciation of perhaps our most famous suburban filmmaker) and a cultural critic who grew up in a generic corner of Chicagoland, the question of how the suburbs shape their offspring is personal. Diamond hopes to offer a “love letter” to the overlooked good in the suburbs, especially the thirst for rebellion that they sometimes instill. “We try to pigeonhole suburbia,” he writes in the preface, “act like it’s a great big boring monolith of conformity and tract housing, but there’s so much more to it than that, and we need to understand it better.” The Sprawl combines cultural history, personal anecdote, and glowing—if glancing—tributes to the iconic American art that has been made in or about suburbia. Diamond’s generous if not always convincing appraisal of this archetypal American milieu is a useful reminder that there is no single story to tell about suburbs—the places where roughly half of Americans live—and no way to know what may come of a new generation making its home there.

THOUGH DIAMOND IS RIGHT to insist that the suburbs aren’t a monolith, his loose, associative style tends to muddy the distinctions that really matter. The suburbs are more complicated than their John Cheever image in part because the word “suburb” can mean many things. To draw the most basic distinction, “inner ring” suburbs closer to urban centers are growing more diverse and more liberal, while “outer ring” exurbs tack the opposite way, partly due to white residents of the former fleeing to the latter when they decide their neighborhoods have become too Black and brown. While Diamond’s project doesn’t require the specificity of, say, sociology, he undermines his own argument when he overlooks the most measurable ways that life in the suburbs is as manifold as he claims. 

A chapter that slides from a working-class town outside of Chicago to a tony enclave in northern New Jersey seeks similarities while gliding past differences; another section references the teen dramas of John Hughes alongside Jordan Peele’s revolutionary horror film Get Out—both glossed, inadequately, as movies about “suburban outcasts.” In one especially aggravating moment, Diamond considers deepening a chapter about suburban teenagers by interviewing some actual adolescents, but decides against it because “adults have been bothering suburban kids for far too long,” and “it’s probably better to give them space.” This lack of rigor consigns him to speaking in generalities, sometimes the same ones that he argues against elsewhere, like branding suburbs “alienating” and “conformist.” 

A similar sloppiness is on display in the book’s title, which doubles as a key analytical concept. Borrowed from William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer—partly set in a near-future metropolis that stretches from Boston to Atlanta—“the Sprawl,” in Diamond’s hands, becomes a catchall for the worst sins of suburbia, a bucket to hold the reader’s reflexive distaste for a world of giant highways, strip malls, and identical big-box stores. “It’s corporate, it’s bland . . . It’s everything becoming one,” he writes. Torn between exonerating his subject and acceding to its detractors, Diamond tries to have it both ways at once: “The sprawl, not the suburbs, is what I don’t like.” This sleight of hand obscures more than it reveals; after all, the suburbs’ most insidious face might be the street of stately, single-family Colonials, as opposed to the Verizon store next to the Arby’s.

Diamond is at his best when he tries to reconcile competing ways of seeing suburbia, insisting that suburbs “aren’t one thing or another,” but usually both at the same time. In a chapter about the detached garage—an affront, if ever there was one, to the egalitarian possibilities of residential density—he celebrates all the bracing rock, punk, and techno music written in those otherwise wasted spaces. He unearths an old blog called Hardcore Architecture that memorializes the unremarkable places where strikingly original art was born. The scroll of images is monotonous—but Diamond reads the songs as a response to the provocation of that oppressive sameness. 

The shopping mall becomes another unexpected site of radical possibility. Diamond considers the concept’s surprising origins in the work of the socialist architect Victor Gruen, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe who hoped to offer Americans a new kind of communal space. Gruen disavowed his creations when they became “shrine[s] to the mighty dollar,” as Diamond writes. But Diamond sees flashes of Gruen’s utopian vision in the coercive gleam of 1980s consumer culture that he remembers from his own adolescence. He examines his nostalgia for the days of wandering with friends through some bright-lit gallery, “planting a flag in the food court or on a bench by Pacific Sunwear, saying that it was our place, and we were going to enjoy our time there.” Diamond presents his experience of the mall as a tiny fulfillment of Gruen’s anti-capitalist fantasy. “Truth is,” he reflects fondly, “I hardly recall ever buying anything.” 

But Diamond’s search for the subversive potential of suburbs is hampered by his limited grasp of their politics. He wants to prove that the outskirts of cities are sites of countercultural and anti-commercial yearning, defined by an “undercurrent of strangeness, of bottled-up energy, rage, passion, and creativity.” But he overlooks the stories that best support his thesis. For instance, the ones documented in the book Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City (2019), in which Amanda Kolson Hurley—a former editor at the urban planning outlet CityLab—uncovers suburban communities founded by anarchists, socialists, racial integrationists, and utopians seeking structures of support beyond the nuclear family. This alternate history tears an opening in the dominant narrative about the suburbs; Diamond’s close readings, by contrast, only poke a few holes. 

If Diamond doesn’t reference these explicitly radical suburban histories, he does try to imagine a more progressive future for the places he writes about. With many cities so expensive as to be “unlivable,” he argues that suburbs may be the best hope for artists seeking low rents, and middle-class aspirants of all racial backgrounds. But the issue of whom the suburbs are intended to serve is political, as Donald Trump demonstrated when he claimed in July that Joe Biden was out to “destroy” them, vowing to end an Obama-era rule that promoted desegregation. Diamond seems vaguely aware that battles over zoning and housing have the power to determine who gets to live where. But his attempt to cover the topic reveals his unfamiliarity with the terrain: Chronicling a campaign to stop condos from going up on one of three golf courses in Avon, Connecticut, he relates the activists’ concerns about “environmental impact,” unaware that he’s parroting one of NIMBYism’s most persistent red herrings, and equates wealthy, anti-development suburban homeowners concerned about the preservation of their town’s “character” with low-income urban communities battling gentrification. If Diamond wanted to find a microcosm of suburban activism, he could have focused on one of the ongoing efforts to build affordable housing in suburbs such as Arlington, Virginia (outside Washington, DC), or Newton, Massachusetts (Boston’s wealthiest bedroom community). His choice of subject suggests a startling ignorance of the forces shaping the suburban future he attempts to foretell. 

Still, Diamond’s impulse to look for signs of left-of-center politics in the suburbs is a good one; the question of how much progressive sentiment lurks in commuter towns has never had more profound implications. Suburbanites contributed to Biden’s narrow margin of victory. If the suburbs become more central to Democrats’ strategy going forward, suburbanites could provide a new check on left-wing policy—or their votes might reflect the fact that they, like people in cities, are struggling with rising rents and growing poverty. 

Diamond seems to want to show us that the suburbs mirror America, in all its complexity: They can be richer than the cities they orbit or poorer; they can be more racially homogenous or more diverse. And indeed, a grave consequence of the suburban stereotype that Diamond sets out to dismantle is the way it serves as a convenient scapegoat for realities about whiteness and privilege that persist wherever Americans make their homes. In the pandemic, communities of color are suffering disproportionately while nearby white neighborhoods remain relatively safe. In cities and suburbs alike, a white-collar job and an internet connection turn out to offer a more significant form of seclusion than the most verdant lawn. If we could see suburbs clearly—if we could stop using them as a shorthand for a sheltered existence—we might be forced to contend with the boundaries that define all American lives. Unfortunately, Diamond’s hazy understanding of the facts on the ground means he can offer only a foggy view. 

At the end of The Sprawl, Diamond asks himself whether he would ever move back to the suburbs. The answer seems to be no, though he can’t explain why, except to say that Brooklyn is “my home, the place where my community is.” Plus, “cities are the cooler option.” It’s frustrating to see a writer hit on a question that occupies the minds of so many yet find so little language, here or elsewhere, to delineate its dimensions. Throughout The Sprawl, Diamond’s search for a new vantage on the suburbs circles the fixed point of his own instincts and assumptions, carrying us back to what we already know. But he’s right that there are reasons to stay in the city, even if the pandemic has made urban life feel more suburban than ever before, as we cut wide arcs around strangers on sidewalks, close ourselves into cars instead of taking the subway. Still, cities confront us with other people, prompting us to consider our responsibility to better share the space we have.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is the executive editor of Jewish Currents.