The great movement of Americans during the 20th century has been from the countryside and small cities into big metropolitan areas. But within metropolitan areas the movement has been outward, from the cities to the suburbs. The next census, in 2000, will show that the United States has become majority-suburban: Most Americans, that is, now live in metropolitan areas but outside the city limits.
New York is the biggest city in the country by a wide margin, and it is the most urban in character–but don’t let that deceive you. Seventy percent of New Yorkers live in the suburbs. New York has been majority-suburban for decades, since before there was Levittown or Newsday or Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. About one in 20 Americans is a New York suburbanite.
The suburbs dominate popular culture. The default setting for movies, television shows, and even rock music is the suburbs. Anything with an urban or a rural setting is self-consciously played as “different.” The suburbs dominate politics, especially national politics. Newt Gingrich is the first suburban speaker of the House. Every presidential campaign is now conceived of by strategists as a battle for the soul of the suburbs. (The presidential electorate became majority-suburban years before the country as a whole did.) The dominant political machine in New York is a suburban one, Al D’Amato’s.
Forget every Sunday-newspaper trend story you’ve ever read about gentrification, or about harried metropolitans fleeing to small towns, or about good-hearted buppies returning to the ‘hood. Those are statistical blips, or anecdotes, or fantasies. Urban America is still losing population. Rural America is still losing population. Black people are suburbanizing faster than white people. The suburbs are unstoppable, inescapable.
It is still possible to hear the suburbs described, especially by professional city planners and other urbanologists, as a kind of temporary and revocable aberration. You know the argument: They were subsidized by the federal government through the interstate-highway program and cheap Veterans Administration mortgages. They were forced upon New Yorkers by a road-crazy, mass-transit-hating Robert Moses. Their growth was a pure product of race prejudice. Millions of people, especially New Yorkers, are poised, ready, waiting, eager to move back into the city, if only … I’m sorry. Forget about it. The main reason for the growth of the suburbs is that Americans like suburbs. They like houses. They like lawns. They like cars. Most low-income city people would move to the suburbs if they could. Mass commitment to urbanism has never existed in the United States–even in New York, which seems more urban than it really is because it annexed most of its suburbs (that is, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island) long ago.What’s remarkable about New York’s suburbs is not their demographic success–that’s a characteristic of all suburbs–but their cultural failure. New York has the most out-of-it, least happening suburbs of any big American city.
Only New York has no suburb with an essentially yuppie character–by which I mean dotted with little strip centers containing, perhaps, one or two casually chic restaurants, a Starbucks, a Borders, an upscale food market, an art gallery, a Merchant-Ivory-type movie theater, and a mildly stylish home-furnishings store. Palo Alto, Shaker Heights, and University City, Mo., have far more of a patina of sophistication than any New York suburb.
New York also doesn’t have a full-blown suburban-nirvana “edge city” suburb, such as Plano, Texas, or Bloomington, Minn., or Tysons Corner, Va.–the kind of suburb that has shiny, enormous malls and “totally planned communities” with spindly little trees and curving streets and thatchy English names.
Meanwhile, a truly hip suburb (no, that’s not oxymoronic–go visit West Lake Hills, Texas, or Berkeley or Topanga, Calif.), where there would be leaflets stapled to the telephone poles and vegetarian restaurants and rave clubs, is completely out of the question in New York, the only American city where there is still a total overlap between “downtown” and “bohemian.” It’s the only city where the actual city is still the center not just of the metropolis’s official high culture but of its everyday culture too.
Westchester County, where I live, is suburbia set in amber. Its population has barely fluctuated for three-quarters of a century. You like prewar buildings? Virtually the whole county of Westchester below Interstate 287 is prewar buildings–it could be a movie set. There are very few malls. Superstores are just starting. There is ethnicity. There are country clubs–the old undemocratic kind, not the new kind that are essentially outdoor health clubs. The expensive restaurants still serve “continental cuisine.” The communities are all villages with sidewalked main streets containing rows of brick buildings: just what brave suburban reformers in the Sun Belt are struggling desperately to coax into existence.
Life revolves around children. If you lead any kind of “alternative lifestyle,” you will be left blessedly alone, rather than being ostracized, but you won’t find much in the way of an affinity culture. At dinner parties, people argue whether the kid who wrote “bitch” on a toilet stall in the middle-school bathroom should be expelled. My suburb, Pelham, is Westchester’s alleged literary-media colony, but I have never been to a single social event here where a hothouse conversation about the Industry could be sustained for more than about half an hour before it slowly flutters back to home ground: the town and the kids. (Yes, this was the case even the week that Pelhamite Joe Klein was unmasked as the author of PrimaryColors.)
V irtually all the cultural imagery pertaining to Westchester dates from the 1950s, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit era, and is now out of date. But nothing has replaced it. Martinis, barbecues, cigarettes, adultery–all are now vestigial, but where are the new suburban symbolic hooks?
Back in the 1950s, twin colossi sat astride the Hudson, figuratively glowering at each other: Betty Friedan in Grandview on the West Bank, writing The Feminine Mystique, and John Cheever in Scarborough on the East Bank, writing the Wapshot books and the short stories. She, upset about the limited role accorded educated upper-middle-class women; he, upset about how little comfort the unlimited role accorded upper-middle-class male Episcopalians seemed to bring. Since then at least one monumental social change has swept across suburbia–namely the entry of married women into the work force–without generating a literature. The best Westchester novel of the past quarter-century, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, is set in 1910.
When I moved to New York from Texas, people kept pulling me aside and saying, helpfully, that my life would be completely ruined if I chose to live in the suburbs (or the city). All my friends who had grown up in the organic New York suburbs had, at some point around age 14, taken a blood oath never ever to live in the suburbs as adults. People who did move to the suburbs had to obey an unwritten conversational rule that you had to justify it in stagy and fake terms, either by exaggerating the hellishness of the city for children or by pretending that the suburbs were really not that far away and had lots of great Korean groceries. I felt as if I had wandered in in the middle of the second act–why did it make such a big difference? What had happened to all those people when they were 14 that was so horrifying?
I now realize that what all this was really about was, first, the extreme difference in New York between suburban and urban culture (which doesn’t exist in most other cities because they don’t really have an urban culture for middle-class parents any more); and, second, status. The status point is a tricky one. In the minor leagues of status, where most people play, the city is for the poor and the suburbs are for the rich, so to move out to the suburbs is to move up as well. But in the major leagues of status, the city outranks the suburbs. The city is where the real players live. The city is for the aristocracy, and the suburbs are for the bourgeoisie.
In the major leagues, when you live in the suburbs, it means that you haven’t made it enough to afford the basic setup of co-op apartment-private school-weekend house. Or it means that you’re not New York-savvy enough to be able to arrange for yourself one of those special little deals the city is full of, such as, mainly, a rent-controlled apartment. Or it means that you’re not artful enough to be able to live charmingly as a bohemian. If you have major-league aspirations and can’t manage to live in the city, you’re better off moving out past the suburban Zone of Shame and living full time in the kind of lovely small town where major leaguers spend weekends and summers. At least then you’re plausibly rustic and creative.
When I’m off the Eastern Seaboard and people ask me where I’m from, I say “New York.” When closer to home I have to answer in apologetic question-language: “A suburb of New York? In Westchester County? Called ‘Pelham’?” Think of a real New York big shot–Felix, Spike, Brooke, Donna, Mick, Anna–and then try to picture that person standing on a train platform listening to a humanoid voice announce over a microphone, 1984-style, “Attention! The 8:19 train to … New York … will be 13 minutes late due to … operating difficulties.” It doesn’t work, does it?
More than the Democratic Party, more than major-league baseball, more than the Social Security system, more than the Hollywood salary structure, the New York suburbs need to be reinvented. They need a real animating idea that isn’t a half-century old. Or, at the very least, a new set of clichés.