Owning a home represented more than just prosperity; over the years, it came to represent patriotism, good citizenship, and the mark of a productive member of society. During the Cold War, home ownership was credited with upholding American free-market ideals.
The suburbs have always represented more to America than just a place to live. For many, it's signalled safety and a haven; for others, stultification and conformity; and for almost everyone, home ownership. When one thinks of the suburbs, it's of owners, not of renters, and of middle-class prosperity.
But as author Leigh Gallagher outlines, all of these defining qualities are changing, and they have been for years:
The more I researched, the more I discovered that the most dramatic shift involves where and how we choose to live—and it isn’t a result of the Great Recession at all. Rather, the housing crisis only concealed something deeper and more profound happening to what we have come to know as American suburbia. Simply speaking, more and more Americans don’t want to live there anymore.
But so implanted in the American psyche is the dream of the leafy burbs, its cul-de-sacs, its supposedly better schools and big backyards, few paid attention to the reverse migration, which has been unfolding for quite a while in distinctive patterns, as we'll learn below the fold.
The truth is, whatever psychic national need was met by moving further and further out of cities, something changed. And the hip, the urban, the public transport, the lure of the bright lights, once again began to call, especially to the younger generations of Americans who are just getting started on the family-raising business.
Things millennials don’t want: lawns to take care of, extra or "museum" rooms that don’t get used, long commutes, too much space. What they do want: lots of space for entertaining, enough room for the Wii, open kitchens to cook for themselves and their friends, outdoor fire pits, maybe a space for their dog. Oh, and they want to rent. Because of their lack of job security, interest in preserving freedom and flexibility, and the fact that many of them were spooked by the recent housing market crash, millennials don’t see home ownership the way generations before them did. Some demographers have taken to calling them "Generation Rent."
The rising generation is one of limited expectations, coming of age with student debt and a shaky economy. They wisely don't want to get weighed down with acreage and auto loans, McMansions and overwhelming square footage. Along with the downside of not craving a big lawn, a three-car garage and 5,000-square-feet of living space comes a whole "small is more beautiful" philosophy that impacts not only real estate, but the whole consumer culture:
Smaller homes fit less stuff, of course, and there’s a major shift in the zeitgeist taking place here, too. While the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s saw an explosion in conspicuous consumption, the Great Recession and the housing bust and the ensuing reset that has taken place have tempered our collective materialism and ushered in a small but growing “anti-stuff” mentality.
In one way or another, directly or indirectly, almost every boom of the suburbs—and now the bust—is related to America's infatuation and dependence on the automobile. "Of all the many complaints about the modern, postwar American suburbs," Gallagher writes, "most of them can be traced in some way to the suburbs’ relationship with the car." This reliance has become particularly painful in an era of rising fuel costs, more social consciousness about energy usage, and—most importantly—the reluctance to fund and maintain infrastructure. Indeed, more than any other aspect, it's the refusal of government to continue the subsidizing of the suburbs that is sounding their death knell:
Suburban development itself—everything from the federal highway system to the single-family home to the low price of gasoline in the United States compared to other countries—was all built and still depends on generous governmental subsidies. “The suburbs are a big government handout if there ever was one,” the author William Upski Wimsatt wrote in the Washington Post in a 2011 article debunking five myths about the suburbs. Myth number three: the suburbs are a product of the free market.
Yes, much as Republicans will want to deny it, the suburbs have been freeloading off the cities and states forever. "The financial viability of our modern suburbs was flawed from the start," Gallagher writes. "The lower density pattern of development doesn’t yield enough tax revenue to pay for the infrastructure needed to support them—one reason many municipalities are struggling or going broke."
And now that the free ride is over, the suburbs are crumbling, with rising poverty rates, potholes, and little experience in creating a safety net. Additionally (and tragically) with the distance between points out there in the burbs, residents who are hanging on have little access to public transportation, so when financial disaster hits, they're stuck—which usually means letting foreclosure take its course.
Gallagher's book is a good guide to the policies and attitudes that led to the creation of what he she [my mistake, the author is a woman. yay! And from here on out, I'm changing the pronouns] terms the "uniquely American phenomenon" of the suburban dream and life. Her history of the rise of their construction touches not only on hard numbers, but on the attitudes of the post-World War II generation that redoubled the spread of the sprawl. And not all of his her views are negative; she acknowledges that there is a real, deep appeal—especially in the inner suburbs closer to cities—for a divide between the busy world of work and the safe haven of home, between domestic and professional life. Even today, he finds many stalwart champions in the burbs, not all of them old, either.
The End of the Suburbs is neither elegiac nor gleeful, but rather considered and even-handed. Gallagher takes a lot of time detailing the new kinds of communities that are being formed as the zeitgeist changes—namely the revitalization of cities and inner suburbs, of small towns that are once again focusing on mixed-use zoning, with trendy townhomes perched above bakeries or interspersed with parks and libraries, schools and corner stores. There are many ways to live, she concludes, and there still may be those who opt for the rolling hills and McMansions—but that option is no longer the overriding one that young Americans entering the housing market choose by default.
As the country resettles along more urbanized lines, some suggest the future may look more like a patchwork of nodes: mini urban areas all over the country connected to one another with a range of public transit options. It’s not unlike the dense settlement of the Northeast already, where city-suburbs like Stamford, Greenwich, West Hartford, and others exist in relatively close proximity. “The differences between cities and suburbs are diminishing ,” says Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy director Bruce Katz, noting that they are also becoming more alike racially, ethically, and socio-economically.
What becomes clear in Gallagher's thoughtful examination of suburban development is that there is a more interesting—and vital and diverse—smorgasbord of housing choices spread out these days, and she sees this (and describes it well) as a positive development. In other words, The End of the Suburbs is not so much an ending for America as a beginning.
Whatever things look like in ten years—or twenty, or fifty, or more—there’s one thing everyone agrees on: there will be more options. The government in the past created one American Dream at the expense of almost all others: the dream of a house, a lawn, a picket fence, two children, and a car. But there is no single American Dream anymore; there are multiple American Dreams, and the entrepreneurs, academics, planners, home builders, and thinkers who plan and build the places we live in are hard at work trying to find space for all of them.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.