Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration
If you care about the suburbs — their health and future — I invite you to listen to a remarkable discussion about American suburbia by some of the nation’s leading voices on suburban issues. It took place at a round-table panel called “Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration” on November 7, 2015, at the the recent conference of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH).
I put this panel together along with Andrew Wiese, professor of history at San Diego State. Andy and I recently wrapped up work on the 2nd edition of our edited book The Suburb Reader (Routledge, forthcoming 2016). As we were in the home stretch of that work, we hatched the idea of bringing to life some of the ideas and perspectives from our book. We invited in a kind of “dream team” of suburban experts to discuss and debate the past, present and future of American suburbs.
This is no small matter. Suburbia is now home to over half of Americans. It’s crucial that we discern a map for suburbia’s future that integrates economic and social justice, sustainability, community health, and mindfulness about the emerging needs of new suburbanites like immigrants, the elderly and poor. We explored questions like: is there really a suburban crisis right now, as some claim? is that a racist construct? how do we work toward making metropolitan areas more equitable, successful places, that promote decent living standards and opportunities for all? what are the crucial policy choices at hand? as suburban demography is changing — toward much greater diversity — how should suburbs adjust to meet the needs of these diverse residents? are Smart Growth and social justice compatible? This is just a start to the issues and challenges we explored, in a free-flowing conversation, full of rich insights.
Andy and I moderated the discussion, and the participants included:
I wanted to share just the first 15 minutes of a 90-minute conversation here. My plan is to get the whole transcript published somewhere, but for now, check this out:
Andrew Wiese: Because this is a history conference, I thought we would start with a question about the future. Does suburbia have a future? And what does that future look like?
June Williamson: Maybe I’ll jump in here, as the architect and the author of a book called Designing Suburban Futures. I take a very optimistic stance. My research as an architect and urban designer is more case-study based, so you can find specific examples of parts of the suburban landscape – dead malls, strip centers, office parks – that have been vacated… and there have been some really creative retrofitting of these places. Turning them into mixed-use new organizations from single use, only retail, only office. So that paradigm – which comes down to single-use zoning – that has led to an obsolescence or a surplus of this land, is an opportunity. We turn the negative thing into a potential positive opportunity. There are ways in which design and creative thinking about design, and capturing the intellectual capital, and focusing on the suburbs – can help create this future. We can’t not have a suburban future, because more than half of the U.S. population lives there. It’s a fantasy to think that we’re all going to somehow migrate back to the cities. We have to imagine a broader idea of what a city is, that includes suburban places. So I advocate for design. Part of the issue here is people haven’t imagined or seen – they’re beginning to see more examples – but you’ve thought the suburban landscape, it’s built that way and it’s just going to stay that way. That’s just how it is. But we see lots of selective examples where it’s been intensified, retrofitted in a way by adding new uses, making them walkable. They are little fragments, but they do demonstrate a different potential future. And there are things we don’t know about – what’s going to happen with cars, what’s going to happen with family structures.
Andrew Highsmith: Like you said, since over half of Americans live in suburbs, it’s really remarkable that you even have to ask that question. But you do, in light of the fact that these narratives of suburban decline, or suburban death, have become so common now. They’re really almost a genre. And that’s problematic I think. It’s troubling. It’s problematic because a majority of us live in them, and because it’s a narrative that revolves too narrowly around the experiences of white people. It’s remarkable that the kind of convergence of narratives of urban decline that took shape in the 1960s and 1970s… the narratives of “urban crisis” coalesce at a moment when people of color are first gaining majorities in major cities. And now, as people of color are gaining a foothold in suburbs, we’re also being faced with this new narrative of suburban crisis and death. So it’s problematic on that level, but on a number of others as well, in particular because it circumvents the fact that now a majority of immigrants are selecting suburbs as they choose places to live. It’s troubling to me that we even have to talk about this, but I think we do, in light of this flurry of books that have trumpeted the end of suburbia.
Andrew Wiese: would you say that narrative is fundamentally a racist narrative?
Andrew Highsmith: I don’t think it’s fundamentally a racist narrative, but I think it’s been deployed that way in many instances. Some of it is also aspirational, trying to speak to a lot of the different crises that are the result of mass suburbanization — things like infrastructure, live-ability, environmental concerns. I don’t think it necessarily has to be deployed in that way, but I think the way the discourse evolves popularly lends itself to that kind of reading.
Manuel Pastor: I would say the suburbs have a future, but the future ain’t what it used to be. So we really need to re-conceptualize it. I want to say two things about that. You know the suburbs were where the American dream was born and realized. This idea of single-family homes, the working-class being able to secure a toehold in the middle-class, which is what My Blue Heaven really is about. The idea of having some control over your destiny, good schools for your children, etc. It’s also the place where the American dream is now being shattered — through the foreclosure crisis, through degradation of the quality of life because of too much driving, because of the environmental toxins that have been left behind because so many suburbs (frankly in Los Angeles) were located proximate to industry and were built as industrial suburbs. So if we’re thinking about regaining the American dream in some sense – we can complicate that later because it was racist in its foundations as well, these suburbs – we do need to do it, not the least of which why because the suburbs are the swing districts in terms of national elections. That’s the place that’s purple. That’s the place where, if you can create a different identity, a different sense of destiny, you can actually move state politics, national politics, planning, and so much else. So they are really critical to the national future.
On the other hand, there’s really a challenge in the suburbs. Shortly after the events in Ferguson, the shooting of Michael Brown, I went to a meeting in New York about Ferguson, and I began my conversation by saying, “Well, imagine a small suburb with about 25,000 people right next to a big city, formed as part of a great industrial landscape, mostly white in its origins, having gone through dramatic demographic transformation, which now has a set of city agencies that essentially prey on their own people.” And then I stopped and said, “Of course, I’m talking about Maywood, California.” In Maywood, the city fathers/authorities began preying on the undocumented, through a series of fines, towing, etc. I think what it speaks to – and this is what is scary about this future – is that the suburbs are places where the civic infrastructure is really weak. People moved there to escape the politics of the city, and in some sense to escape civic life, at least in my view. They are places where the social services infrastructure is not ready for new immigrants, for the fact more of the nation’s poor live in the suburbs than they do in the cities now. The suburbs aren’t ready for that.
The suburbs are also a place where the community organizing infrastructure is really weak, which is how low-income communities try to find a voice and a toehold, in terms of civic life and gains in social services. That organizing infrastructure is also weak. So I think if that future of the suburbs is to be secure, some part of it is planning, physical landscape, etc., but a lot of it is going to be about community organizing, about building a social services infrastructure and building a civic infrastructure that could make them good places to live again.
Willow Lung Amam: …The suburban American dream, as Manuel was saying, was born out of the industrial city and escapism from city life. And I don’t think that kind of American dream around suburbs is still the reality of why most people are choosing suburbia, or at least the new suburbanites, why they are choosing suburbia. We need to have a more diverse conversation about what the American dream really represents, and how suburbia fits into this narrative. For many immigrants who are choosing suburbs as their first destination, that American dream looks a lot different than it did for the generation of working-class and white Americans who chose suburbs in the postwar era for very different reasons. I think there is some great research that needs to be done to really understand the complexities of the reasons why people are choosing suburbs.
I would also say that the story about Millennials not choosing suburbs is a bit overblown. Millennials are not “not choosing” suburbs. I teach undergraduate classes about cities. Most of my students who grew up in suburbs, when they tell their stories about where they want to live, they still want to live in suburbs. I don’t think that Millennials are not choosing suburbs, they are choosing different kinds of lifestyles, and suburbs are increasingly coming to adapt to the kind of preferences that we are seeing, for more walkable urban-like places that June referred to. So I don’t think the Millennial “return-to-the-city” narrative is complete in the ways in which we’re understanding a new set of values that this generation represents.
… Suburbs not only have a future here, but suburban development and suburban values are also translating overseas, so we have a transnational suburbanism that is really important to take into account in the ways in which the suburbs are growing not only internally in the US, but also abroad.
The other day, we arrived home after I picked up the kids from school, and my daughter runs to the front door and grabs a business card someone left stuck in the doorjam. I assumed it was one of those junk cards for tree trimming. But no. This card had the logo for the television show “Criminal Minds,” and I immediately knew this was good. On the back, it said, “Please call me regarding filming at your front door.”
We ran inside, threw our stuff down, and I beelined for the phone. We’re interested in filming on your front porch, the location scout tells me. It’s between your house and two others. But we really like your house. Oh! I’m thinking, trying to keep my cool and muffle my elation, and also my slight disappointment that our house wasn’t their slam-dunk choice. Yes, I say, we’re available on those dates, yes, feel free to come and look over the property again. Yes, you can completely take over everything (I didn’t say that, but was thinking it.) Yes, yes, yes.
We live in a Los Angeles suburb, so this kind of thing is pretty commonplace and reflects a recent resurgence in local filming. In fact, our neighborhood seems to be a perennial favorite for location scouts. We’re always seeing those yellow signs with the black block letters alongside the road, with cryptic messages like “DM” or “Hungry Man,” directing cast and crew to some undisclosed locale. Our neighbor’s house is always getting picked. But us? never, so far. And mind you, this is no trivial neighborly rivalry over who’s got the best Christmas decorations. This is high-stakes suburban competition. Because if you get picked, the payoffs are, well, let’s say — huge. You enter the world of lavish Hollywood production budgets and they don’t hold back if you have what they want. In our suburb, this is the ultimate lucky break. Your house earns you immediate cold hard cash.
It got me thinking about the ways people milk value out of suburban homes — beyond accruing equity and profiting off surging real estate values. This actually has a long history. Back in the early 20th century, suburbanites rented rooms to lodgers, grew backyard produce, or took in laundry. In the 1920s and 1930s, people in L.A.’s working-class suburbs raised chickens, goats, and produce in backyards to eat or sell, and the same was happening in African-American suburbs and blue-collar suburbs across the nation. I surmise that these practices subsided in the 1950s and 1960s, apart from the occasional Tupperware party where housewives could generate some extra income at home.
But I think we’ve seen a boom in these home-based enterprises since then. You’ve got your home offices of telecommuters, rentals of guest rooms, candy-makers who started out in their suburban kitchen then expanded from there, people selling home-grown produce, Etsy crafters working out of the house, meth labs, and on and on. Zoning laws might restrict things to a degree, but I think there’s a lot of enterprising activities going on behind those suburban front doors. Take us, for instance. In the last few years, we’ve sold persimmons off our huge backyard tree (to the tune of about 75 pounds last year), we’ve run an e-store out of our garage, and my husband and I both work in a shared home office.
And why not? It’s high time our houses started paying for themselves a little more, given the out-sized gouging they do on our wallets. Especially in overheated housing markets like Los Angeles, the income-to-home value ratio has grown completely out of whack since 1970. Consider these statistics on L.A. County, which I compiled from US Census data. It gives you a rough idea of how things have changed since 1950:
When my father bought our family’s suburban home back in 1966, not too far from here, it cost him about 3 years worth of salary. Nowadays, it takes 8 years of salary if you’re lucky, and don’t hit a housing bubble, recession, and the rest.
I think this resurgence of house-based economic activity may be a direct result of this income-to-home value mismatch. And if suburbs are going to continue their stubborn resistance to affordable housing, it makes sense for them to loosen any and all regulations on how we can squeeze the most out of our homes, and to use these domestic spaces in the most economically creative and productive ways we can (excluding those meth labs, of course).
For us, right now, it’s all about “Criminal Minds.” After sitting on pins and needles for a few days, I got a call from my favorite location scout and — guess what? We scored the gig! About 20 members of the crew just stopped by to scope things out. And next week, they’re going to film a scene where a woman gets attacked on our front porch. Let’s just say this is the kind of neighborhood crime I love and welcome to my house anytime.
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?
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.
That gorgeous photo at the top taken by Andy Wiese... it also graces the cover of our book The Suburb Reader
I migrated my blog SuburbanMe to this website... losing all of my comments in the process! I am sorry to lose those terrific insights from my readers.