by Annette Hinkle
The suburbs have long been the epitome of the American Dream. Tidy houses, neat lawns, happy children playing with other happy children and a good sized garage for a car (or two…or three).
But in reality, suburbs and their attraction as a way of life have changed in the years since the Cleavers lived next door. Today, suburban living can mean a hellish commute fed by soaring fuel prices, lack of a discernable community and family time replaced by driving… even the kids have fled, leaving those suburban homes to their graying parents. And while much of the loss in suburban appeal can be traced to the 2008 economic meltdown and housing crisis which left overbuilt and half finished subdivisions all over the country, that’s only part of the story.
The truth is, suburbia began waning as a way of life long before questionable mortgage practices came along.
The demise of suburbia is a topic that intrigues author Leigh Gallagher, an assistant managing editor at Fortune who has written “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving.” The book, which came out in early August, takes an in depth look at the social, demographic and economic forces feeding the next generation’s desire to downsize to walkable communities where amenities, public transportation and neighbors are all close at hand.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who have a lot of nostalgia for a lifestyle that doesn’t exist,” notes Gallagher referring to adults who had idyllic childhoods in the suburbs. “I like writing about societal trends rooted in economic data. I started seeing census data that said cities are growing faster than suburbs.”
“I thought it was really fascinating,” she adds. “We all know what suburbia means in America and the cultural place it has in society. More than just a justification of a way of life, it’s the American Dream. And if that’s changing, it’s a big idea.”
This Saturday, Gallagher will be at Canio’s Books to share her thoughts and words on the topic of suburbia. It’s an appropriate venue given that Gallagher wrote part of the book during a two month stay in Sag Harbor, a place which embodies much of the attraction of older communities created on a human scale.
Gallagher notes the suburbs, in and of themselves, weren’t a bad idea. The first examples were built in the days before cars and were located near cities, anchored by a train station with homes and apartments close to a Main Street. In other words, the entire community was accessible by foot, because that was the primary way people got around.
Then we got the car. Americans discovered freedom and expanded far into rural areas where cheap post World War II tract housing (starting with Levittown) was built for returning soldiers and their burgeoning families.
And we never looked back.
Gallagher notes the car “unhooked” our need to be within walking distance of our daily lives — school, work, shops and recreation. Housing developments became just that — a series of single family dwellings linked to other developments of single family dwellings via busy feeder and arterial roads. Those roads delivered residents to shopping malls or directed them to the highways that would take them back to the cities for work. Kids boarded buses to centralized schools and downtown became a memory.
“Then we went too far,” says Gallagher, referring to the over-building and expansion of recent decades as more and more people sought their own American Dream. “We supersized suburbs. People who could least afford it were going the furthest.”
They were also spending more time in their cars than being physically and socially active with friends and family.
“A lot of this is about time – while I was writing this book, a couple people said ‘You can buy anything you want, but you can’t by time,’” explains Gallagher. “I thought I would find more defenders of suburbia than I did. But a lot of people seem to be on this side of the argument.”
While opinions and anecdotes about suburban living tell part of the story, Gallagher notes the statistics fill in the details.
“We can talk about how poorly designed suburbs are and that they’re not healthy, but there are also demographic forces you can’t fight,” says Gallagher. “There has been a very steep decline in suburban populations where there are now more baby boomers and seniors.”
“On top of that you have the whole play date culture, the serendipitous nature of going outside and finding friends is gone,” she adds.
Then there’s the driving. The suburbs are based on a model of cheap gas and Gallagher has found many people who opted to drive 20 or 30 miles further in order to buy a cheaper and bigger home without realizing the true cost in terms of gas and time.
Gallagher describes as “hellacious” the commute of one California couple in her book who bought a home in Temecula in the far flung reaches of the suburban zone known as the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles. Though they looked for jobs near their new home, the recession made that impossible, so the couple kept working in L.A., commuting the nearly 90 miles on a daily basis.
“It was not a good thing,” says Gallagher. “They got up at 3:50 a.m. to get to the city by 5:15 in order to avoid the traffic. They’d park in a McDonald’s lot because nothing was open, set the cell phone alarm and sleep in the car.”
“When the woman [a teacher] commuted by herself she didn’t feel safe sleeping in the parking lot, so she would go to her classroom and sleep under her desk,” Gallagher adds.
With soul-killing commutes and even non-working parents spending hours shuttling kids who socialize by appointment, many people admit to feeling isolated in the suburbs. It’s not that tight knit suburban communities don’t exist — they certainly do — it’s just that with both fuel costs and horrendous traffic on the rise, the next generation is largely choosing a different way of life.
Gallagher notes urban areas are booming, especially among singles and young families who have fewer children and don’t need big houses (just look at places like Williamsburg in Brooklyn or even Jersey City, across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan, which are incredibly popular places to live and own property). As post-war suburbs flounder, urban areas and first generation suburbs from the late 19th and early 20th century centered around downtowns and train lines are now in high demand.
“We’re seeing a lot of data that older suburbs are increasing in value and even studies that link the age of a community to the happiness and health of residents,” says Gallagher. “Those types of suburbs were built on a different blueprint and different DNA, and that DNA makes for a richer community. It’s what makes them look and feel totally different than newer suburbs.”
And the latest incarnation of the suburb is one built on urban models with mixed use zoning and walkable commercial centers.
“Housing starts are coming back, but much of it is focused on multi-family housing — apartments with four units or more,” explains Gallagher.
Which begs the question, what happens now to all that suburban housing stock out in the hinterland?
“Many experts believe we’re sowing the seeds for a big imbalance,” says Gallagher. “A lot of people are aging in place. But when the baby boomers vacate their homes in the suburbs there’s not going to be a market to take over the homes they’ll be vacating. There’s a real argument that those homes won’t be suitable for the next generation.”
The answer for some subdivisions — especially white elephant bank owned properties — has already been the bulldozer. But if the trends Gallagher shares in her book play out, we may just see rise in their place new suburban developments — housing stock of various sizes and styles, walkable main streets with retail shops on the first floor and apartments on the second and all of it in close proximity to public transportation.
In other words, this time around we may find that the new suburbia looks surprisingly like what we already have right here in Sag Harbor.
Leigh Gallagher will be at Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor on Saturday, August 31 at 5 p.m. to discuss “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving.” In the meantime, the curious might want to check out the walkability rating of communities across the country (including Sag Harbor Village and the surrounding area) by visiting walkscore.com.