Now Is the Perfect Time to Examine the Weird History of American Suburbs

updated Sep 2, 2020
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If you’re a kid from the suburbs, there’s a good chance you couldn’t wait to get out of them—to escape their uniformity and sameness for something else. In his new book, “The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs,” author Jason Diamond, a product of the suburbs himself, forces you to look at what the suburbs have actually given us: uniquely American art.

By weaving a history of the suburbs with his own experiences and an in-depth look at their role in culture, Diamond shows that resentment of the suburbs is what makes them worth appreciating. He points out the once-bright and shining American Dream of owning a single-family home evolved into something else: sprawl.

“The narrative changed,” Diamond writes. “The suburbs were bland and bourgeois, no longer the space age neighborhoods of tomorrow that they once were. The shine had worn off, but developers kept building more homes and neighborhoods, and people kept moving to them despite housing market crises popping up throughout every one of the last three decades of the twentieth century.”

America’s increasingly common tree-lined streets gave way to films and books that reflected the country’s attitudes, from Shirley Jackson novels to David Lynch films. And through all of it, Diamond rejects the notion that “the suburbs” are just one thing to all of us. “We try to pigeonhole suburbia, act like it’s a great big monolith of conformity and tract housing, but there’s so much more to it than that, and we need to understand it better,” he writes. “Otherwise, I believe the things we consider to be true about the suburbs, the fears and misconceptions we have about these places, will overtake us.”

Ultimately, Diamond wants to know how we, city dwellers and suburbanites alike, can do better. From my studio apartment in America’s largest city, I chatted with Diamond over the phone about all the towns out there with way more space. Here’s what he had to say.

Credit: Coffee House Press

Apartment Therapy: What made you want to write a book about the suburbs?

Jason Diamond: I always tell people I grew up along the lake in Chicago. So if you know Chicago at all, that could mean a lot of things. I lived everywhere up and down Lake Michigan and I kind of got to thinking a while back, “Oh, it’s really cool, this place that I come from.” All these people, like Tina Fey, she was the person who greeted me when I showed up at the YMCA when I was a kid. Bill Murray is from a neighborhood away from me. Ray Bradbury is from two towns away from where I lived. I started thinking more and more about all these things that I like that come from the suburbs or are influenced by the suburbs in some way. And we’ve dismissed them for so long! Then my first book came out—it was a memoir about my obsession with John Hughes movies. Whenever I go to an event, there are at least three people who come up to me and say “I grew up in the suburbs and I hated it and couldn’t want to get out.” It got me thinking—it’s interesting that we’re all so down on being from the suburbs. I wonder why that is. I just kept coming up with new questions and it turned into a book. 

AT: This was published at a time when weighing the pros and cons of where to live is one of the biggest conversations right now. What do you think about that?

JD: First of all, it’s weird to be timely. I figured my book would be relevant because the suburbs make up so much of America now. It was always going to be relevant to the conversation. But given the circumstances, I’m not really excited about it being timely to be totally honest. It’s timely because of tragedy. But in the book I talk about how the move to the suburbs was already happening, even before COVID. This isn’t a new thing. 

AT: Yeah, the sprawl has sort of taken shape over a long period of time. How would you describe it?

JD: The sprawl is everything connecting, and not in a good way. It’s like when you’re in the city and you can’t tell the city from the suburb anymore because the buildings in cities are starting to look like the buildings in the suburbs. It’s more building up, and not really buildings that we need. It’s just building more. I’m fine with building. We should build, but we should also be careful about what we build. We need so much in this country, but I don’t think we need another Walmart or another whatever electronics store is still open. Best Buy? It’s really that: the idea that we have so much but we don’t really have anything at all. It’s all clutter. 

It’s really that: the idea that we have so much but we don’t really have anything at all. It’s all clutter. 

AT: Within the first few pages, you address how racism is baked into American suburbs. You can’t really introduce the history of the suburbs without starting there.

JD: If you’re going to be nostalgic, you also have to be critical. Because if you don’t have that critical mindset, you’re just gonna be like “Goshdarnit, I wish it was like the way it used to be,” without admitting the way things used to be wasn’t great for everybody. So if I say, “Oh I want to go back to the 1950s when America was booming and the middle class was having it all,” then I’m totally dismissing the fact that most people of color didn’t have these things. Women didn’t have a lot of the rights they have now. LGBTQ people didn’t have the rights they have now. It’s great to be nostalgic and love stuff from the past, but if you’re going to do that, you have to be like “Hey, the suburbs? There’s a lot of darkness there.” It also helps inform the rest of the book by using that as a setup because I really wanted to show that there are a lot of metaphors to be drawn from the suburbs. My favorite one is sweeping stuff under the rug. I think that’s a very American thing to do and we do it very well in the suburbs. I wish we wouldn’t.

AT: The depiction of the suburbs in American culture is central to your understanding of them. What are the top 3 movies people should watch while reading your book?

JD: First, “Over the Edge”. I feel like I wrote this entire book just so I could tell people to watch that movie. It’s this 1979 gritty teens in the suburbs film. I watched it when I was a teenager and it’s one of those life-changing movies for me. I could take the easy way out and say “Blue Velvet,” which is a classic, but I’m actually going to say the first “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. When I watched it in the context of writing this book, I found the metaphor really interesting. Freddy Krueger is a horrible child molester and his parents just want to ignore that he ever existed. It’s a very suburban metaphor. And then I want to say “The Truman Show”. It’s really great, especially given the time that we’re living in now. The whole movie is great, but I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

AT: Can you sum up how you think we should move forward?

JD: If people are leaving the city and going to the suburbs, my hope is that they see the good in cities—that we can walk places, we ride our bikes, we don’t have to depend on cars. And in a larger sense, cities are politically very active. I hope we start seeing more of that in the suburbs, because that will lead to change and more sustainable places. We’ve really needed the suburbs to be more sustainable. There’s so much suburbia in America and so much of it is unsustainable. We desperately need to fix that. 

These answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.