The town of Harvey sits about 20 miles south of Chicago’s Loop. In 1889 that seemed distant enough to lumberman and banker Turlington Harvey, who was looking to develop a temperance community far from the sinful city. His real estate syndicate, the Harvey Land Association, used the religious press to recruit skilled Christian laborers and small manufacturers, promising a secure environment for the pursuit of good clean living. Harvey’s suburb worked pretty much according to plan. By 1900 it had nearly 5,400 residents and its own bank. By 1930 it had more than 16,000 souls, thriving businesses, a community hospital and a successful school system. It was mostly Protestant and 98 percent white.
Today Harvey is 76 percent African American and 19 percent Hispanic, and its population—25,000—is down nearly 20 percent since 2000. The per capita income, $13,801, is half that of Chicago. The poverty rate, 31 percent, is 50 percent greater. Its schools are failing. Its major employers fled long ago. The average price of a home is $22,648, down 50 percent since 1994. On a scale of one to 100, the real estate site NeighborhoodScout.com rates Harvey a one, for most dangerous, and informs prospective buyers that their chances of being a victim of violent crime and property crime are one in 63 and one in 14, respectively. Harvey has long been a hot spot for drug trafficking, and the town is filled with empty lots and abandoned properties that dealers use as retail hubs.
For years Harvey was best known for the Dixie Square Mall, an indoor mall that closed in 1978 and was used as a set for the shopping-center crash scene in The Blues Brothers. No one bothered to clean the place after the film wrapped. The abandoned mall was vandalized in 1984 and left to deteriorate until January 2012, when its asbestos was removed and the structures were demolished. The demolition would have happened earlier if Harvey had any resources, but the town has been close to broke for decades. It took funds from a federal disaster grant to level the mall.
Gloomy office parks line the highways of the middle-class suburbs about 50 miles north of Harvey. Their architecture is sleek and modern, with reflective glass, expensive landscaping and the logos of multinational corporations displayed on big signs. But in recent years they’ve been hollowing out. Large employers are leaving the suburbs and setting up shop in downtown Chicago, where today’s young and educated workers prefer to settle. AT&T, Motorola Mobility, Kraft, Allstate and United Airlines are just a few of the big companies that have vacated Chicagoland’s suburban campuses and leased new space in the city. And Chicago is not unique: During 2011 businesses vacated 16 million square feet of suburban office space across the country.
The flight from suburbia is part of a national trend that involves homeowners as well as businesses. According to Christopher Leinberger, a Brookings Institution fellow and professor at the George Washington University business school, urban planners and real estate developers expect a huge surplus of large-lot houses (built on a sixth of an acre or more) in the coming decades. One expert predicts an oversupply of roughly 40 percent of these homes by 2025.
A generation ago, Americans wanted big houses, big yards, big cars and big distances between their communities and the city. The suburbs gave them a world unto themselves. Americans still love private space and single-family homes. But these days we also value networks and connections, and a growing number of us are looking for walkable neighborhoods with thriving commercial centers and reliable public transportation. We’re finding them in cities, small and large, rather than in the suburbs. In our ecologically fragile age, gas and car commutes are far more expensive, and heating and cooling a large house is a crushing burden for most. How many of today’s middle-class suburbs will eventually resemble Harvey? How many office parks will become ghost towns?
The United States is a suburban nation. Our suburbs were explicitly designed to promote inequality by placing private interests above the common good. The pursuit of class separation and the increasing emphasis on women and children inspired America’s great suburban migration. Public policies that subsidized builders, highway construction and home buyers but excluded residents of minority neighborhoods made suburbs possible, while also encouraging the white middle class to abandon cities.
By the late 20th century, however, the suburbs were no longer homogeneous. They came in all varieties, from gated enclaves to asphalt office parks to slums. Many, such as Harvey, were full of so-called urban problems, yet all but the most affluent municipalities lacked the resources required to address them because their tax base was so small. The state of suburbia was dire. As suburban communities from Florida to California are hit by waves of foreclosures and crippling municipal debt, we need to acknowledge that suburbs have failed. We need to integrate them with the entire metropolis and reunite them with the people and institutions they were built to shun. We need to make them urban.
In some ways, the urbanization of suburbia is already happening. Once lily-white, today’s suburbs are ethnically diverse. A 2012 study by Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity reports that the number of diverse suburban neighborhoods (where the nonwhite population is between 20 percent and 60 percent) went up 37 percent between 2000 and 2010. Today the overwhelming majority of new immigrants move to suburbs, not cities, and in recent decades African Americans—including many who have been displaced by urban gentrification—have joined them. In Chicago, for instance, 180,000 African Americans left the city between 2000 and 2010.
Once bourgeois utopias, suburbs now house 15.4 million poor people, more than in large cities or rural areas. Since 2000 poverty rates have risen almost five times faster in suburbs than in the urban core, and now Harvey is but one of many “suburban ghettos” where extreme poverty, social isolation and racial segregation deprive residents of meaningful opportunities for success. In the late 20th century, rust belt cities suffered from deindustrialization and decline. Countless suburbs in that region are in bad shape these days, but suburban poverty is most concentrated in the southern regions, from Florida to Texas to California.
Once known for their high-quality public services, today’s suburbs are strapped with municipal debt and overwhelmed by the needs of their residents. Suburbs everywhere are struggling to repair their aging infrastructure and maintain the strength of their school systems. Some will recover when the economy turns around and their tax revenue increases. But impoverished suburbs are fucked no matter what happens in the market, because they have no chance of attracting wealthier home buyers or of generating the tax revenue required to pay for schools, transportation, police and health services.
The crisis of the public sector is a direct consequence of the fact that, despite their urban elements, suburbs remain politically suburban. Unlike cities, which incorporate rich and poor residents, as well as businesses of all kinds, suburbs are small political entities that run largely off property taxes. Historically this worked fine for affluent suburbanites, who agreed to support the local institutions their families needed and were content to use the city parasitically for work, entertainment and cultural pursuits. The system of fragmented metro governments has never worked well for less prosperous suburbs, however. In recent decades it has also hampered the wealthier ones, because it gives them no capacity to address regional problems—such as pollution, traffic and crumbling infrastructure—that degrade the quality of daily life.
Gerald Frug, the Louis D. Brandeis professor at Harvard Law School, is one of many urban experts who insist there’s no way to solve the suburban crisis with the political structures in place today. “State policies foster competition and discourage cooperation,” Frug says. “And fragmentation enriches parts of a region while impoverishing others.” Frug points to the success of Portland’s Metro, an elected regional government that spans 25 cities around Portland, and the Puget Sound Regional Council, which has been coordinating planning around Seattle since 1991. But few places have adopted such models, and states have done nothing to encourage affluent suburbs to integrate with neighboring communities. The future of suburbia may well hinge on whether that changes.
There’s another important way that most suburbs remain suburban: They continue to lack walkable commercial districts, viable public spaces and public transit systems that allow people of all ages to be together without driving a car. Americans accepted this arrangement 60 years ago, when we valorized domestic life and stigmatized the street. Back then suburban kids played in backyards and culs-de-sac and their mothers spent most of their days around the house. These days, however, women work outside the home and children pursue their individual interests in specialized classes. Moreover, downtowns are desirable. People want to walk and shop and sip coffee on busy sidewalks, but suburbanites need automobiles to reach them. Walking requires driving, which means everyone winds up sitting in traffic or searching for parking.
Suburbia sentences all those who move there to an unending series of car rides: to school, to work, to the train station. To the grocery store, mall, car wash. To soccer practice, tennis lessons, music classes. To the Olive Garden, movie theater, mall. To go to the city, to come home from the city—and preferably not during rush hour, though these days it’s rush hour most of the time.
Suburbanites who have moved to the city are evangelical about their liberation from car culture. Parents are especially adamant about the virtues of city living, since they no longer spend afternoons and weekends chauffeuring children nor evenings praying that their teenagers don’t drink and drive. So are cash-strapped car owners who didn’t plan on spending $4 a gallon on gasoline and who know that in coming years $4 will seem cheap.
Of course, the biggest cost of our oil-dependent suburban lifestyle is ecological. The private cars and SUVs. The huge single-family homes with central air-conditioning and inefficient heating systems. The sprinklers. The sprawl. The planet cannot sustain these any longer, and the question today is how much more damage we will do before we deal with this fact.
Some forward-looking suburbs are already retrofitting themselves to meet the demands of a changing landscape. In his important new book, The Great Inversion, Alan Ehrenhalt calls attention to a set of exemplary “urbanizing suburbs” around Denver. Such places are discarding restrictive zoning laws that forcibly separate spaces for work, home and play, and are integrating residential, recreational and retail facilities into new downtowns.
The Denver district known as Stapleton, for instance, has transformed from a vast and empty airport (it was effectively replaced by the Denver International Airport in the 1990s) into a compact, neighborhood-based community where the maximum lot size for private homes is a quarter acre, the parks and sidewalks are teeming with children and the local population is expected to triple in the next 20 years. It’s not far from CityCenter Englewood, a transit-oriented development that, Ehrenhalt reports, calls itself “the first project in Colorado to replace a suburban shopping mall with a living, breathing, mixed-use downtown.”
Belmar, in the Lakewood suburb on the other side of Denver, also replaced a failed shopping center with a quasi-urban development—albeit one without schools or accommodations for families. After a $120 million demolition project, developers built a series of dense residential blocks designed for singles, childless couples and empty nesters. Two thirds of its residences are apartments, and rental rates—about 20 percent above those in neighboring suburbs—attest to the demand for such properties.
When I was doing research for my recent book Going Solo, about the extraordinary spike in singles (who now account for half of all American adults) and singletons (people who live alone), I came across countless suburbanites—some widowed, some divorced—who complained they no longer fit in the places they lived. Their houses were too big for their needs, too difficult to maintain, too expensive to keep. Yet there were no local options, no attractive apartments with shops and restaurants in the neighborhood, nothing nearly as compelling as the city. This was a problem: They’d spent their lives in suburbia, building gardens and friendships and communities that sustained them. But things no longer worked there, and they knew they would soon have to leave it all behind.
The truth is that in the coming decades most of us will have to leave suburbia—or at least we’ll have to give up the kinds of suburbs that have anchored American middle-class culture from World War II until today. The problems they generate are still not adequately studied in our nation’s college classrooms, nor are they sufficiently addressed in city councils, statehouses or the halls of Congress. But they are apparent to anyone who leaves the city limits and looks at the sprawling mess we’ve created. They are apparent to the people who live in them and to the people who are trying not to live in them but cannot sell their homes.
American suburbia was a utopian project, but it has failed on a massive scale. There’s only one way to save the suburbs, and that is to destroy them. The future of suburbia is the city.