The Book Club

If It’s Not Brooklyn, It’s Crap!

Alan, your mention of the theory of evil small towns reminds me of a favorite New Yorker cartoon. An idyllic New England town is shown in the background. A rustic highway sign reads, “Welcome to Pleasantville. Where Something Terribly, Terribly Wrong Lurks Just Below the Surface”

Let’s turn our attention to Ray Suarez. Those who like books that don’t beat around the bush will like The Old Neighborhood. Suarez thinks suburbs are “mind-numbingly banal.” He sees the postwar exodus from the city center to the purlieus as driven by racism: “The very word urban is becoming a coded synonym for black and brown.” Suarez believes that burb out-migration destroys community values, since “when we no longer lived and worked in proximity to one another, we no longer know the same things.” And the Sunbelt cities whose growth is coincident with old-city loss? Ditch ‘em. Los Angeles is such bland sameness that “you could drive for hours and not think you had gone anywhere.”

It is a commonplace to romanticize the circumstances of youth. For Suarez, youth was the old ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where “I started life on the same block where my mother grew up.” In the Brooklyn of his memories, friends waved to each other as they walked to the corner grocery store, people sang on the stoops, families stayed put generation after generation. This, The Old Neighborhood repeatedly suggests, is how life ought to be lived, yet America is accelerating away from it.

Funny, Suarez is too. He didn’t hang around in Brooklyn, exiting for a media career in Chicago and Washington, D.C., where he now resides in one of the leafy parts of town. And for someone who extols old-fashioned neighborliness, he doesn’t exactly ooze it himself. Suarez spends a page railing against the fact that commuters into D.C. don’t pay a commuter tax. They don’t, but Washington receives the highest per-capita federal revenue of any major city: What earthly difference does it make whether the burbs transfer money to D.C. via tax withholding lines that read “federal” or “commuter”? Suarez expends another page ranting that drivers with Maryland and Virginia tags park on his D.C. street. So, Ray, we take it you’ve never parked in Maryland or Virginia?

The Old Neighborhood exhibits tenacious reporting energy and the courage of its convictions, but being so opinionated invites strong opinion in return. The book’s central weakness is insufficient rigor in critically examining the author’s assumptions. For instance, Suarez repeatedly tells us it was wrong of America to build suburbs. But given immigration and the baby boom, where, exactly, was everyone supposed to go? If burbs hadn’t been built, the cities Suarez loves would now be hellishly overcrowded. Suarez asserts that racism motivated suburban migration, and there’s no doubt it was a factor. But he sees racism as close to the only motive, downplaying the urge to get away from crime (for women, especially, traveling in a car means being much less vulnerable to crime than traveling on foot), the longing for a detached home (even minorities vote with their feet for this), the rational desire to escape urban government ineptitude. Suarez describes one 1980s Chicago city agency as “corrupt, featherbedded, almost laughably mismanaged.” Well?

Part of Suarez’s vehemence against the suburbs may stem from not residing in one: For a world traveler, when it comes to suburbia he exhibits classic fear of the unknown. I’ve lived in center city areas in Washington, Chicago, and elsewhere, and also in two suburbs–and it’s been in the suburbs that I’ve known my neighbors best and interacted with them most. True, burbs don’t look like cities, but their sociology is not as different as Suarez imagines. The Old Neighborhood’s view of Los Angeles is revealing in this regard. That metropolis has a broad range of neighborhoods and ethnic areas culturally and physically quite distinct, but they all seem numbingly identical to Suarez because none of them physically resembles Brooklyn.

The Old Neighborhood should be admired for its drive and gumption, but in the end sells short the very cities it lauds. Suarez suggests all is lost for traditional cities: He uses the metaphor of a foundering ship. Setting aside the remarkable urban comebacks in New York, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere, this view misses the historical nature of migration cycles. The “traditional” American urban-melting-pot neighborhood that seems to Suarez the natural order of things did not itself come into existence until about the turn of the century, when European immigrants arrived from the east and blacks arrived from the South. Now their grandchildren have decamped for the burbs, supplanted by new immigrants from South American and Asia and the subcontinent, who will re-stir the pot and start a new old neighborhood someone will someday lament as the one true and proper place to raise kids.