Let’s Stop Shaming the Suburbs

I have been a New Yorker for over a decade now, but I have spent the past few months in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, since it’s a little easier on our family during the pandemic. Locals joke that it’s a “suburb of nowhere,” and it’s true that the region may lack some of the density and sizable cultural institutions that define the New York experience—24/7 amenities, robust public transit, and the sidewalk ballets. But the tidewater region is anything but an isolated wasteland, and spending time here has been absolutely lovely.

There are still art galleries, great restaurants, options for family activities, nightlife (such as it is during a pandemic), and recreation. There is also considerable racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, too. In these suburbs, I already know my neighbors and community members and I have had numerous encounters along the street during long pandemic inspired walks. More than 200 parks and outdoor areas are within an hour’s drive and most are free. There is ample space and life is far more affordable, and even easy compared to New York. As such, it is impossible to declare that either dense urban center or sprawling Virginian region is a better urban form in which to live; rather, they are simply different with various attributes and tradeoffs. 

So, when publications like The New Republic run stories with headlines “The Suburbs Are Still Hell,” I find this unnecessarily polarizing. Living here in Virginia—and I have lived in other urban and suburban areas for over two decades now—is anything but hell. Perhaps to someone born, raised, and having never left a neighborhood like Park Slope in Brooklyn or the Upper West Side of Manhattan, suburban life may appear hellish. But this simply does not square with views of many Americans. Not only does my experience say otherwise, but statistics about suburbia are quite clear: Americans like the suburbs and want to be here.

More specifically, the New Republic piece summarizes new work about the problems of American suburbia but relies on old tropes about the lack of “organic social interaction” including “existential despair” and alienation. The problem is that while some writers may feel social lives do not exist outside of cities, that simply is not true.

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