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The rise and fall of the suburb: How a reflection of the American Dream turned 'bland' — and why the homes just kept getting bigger

Jason Diamond   

The rise and fall of the suburb: How a reflection of the American Dream turned 'bland' — and why the homes just kept getting bigger
  • Jason Diamond is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. The following is an excerpt from his new book, "The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs."
  • In it, he discusses the rise of suburbs in the US, and its transformation from its post-war, classically American roots into a hub of diverse groups.
  • As more baby boomers grew successful in a healthy economy, "the narrative changed," he said. Traditions were rejected, suburbs turned bland, and homes got bigger.
  • The collection of essays points to other modern-day examples, history, and Diamond's personal life to examine how suburbia has shaped society over time.

For the children and grandchildren of people who were old enough to see the beginning of the modern suburbs — Generation X, the millennials, and Generation Z, born, according to most definitions, from the mid-sixties all the way to the present day — the great promise of suburbia had lost some of its luster by the time they arrived.

This was due in large part to slow economic growth (otherwise known as "stagflation") in the seventies that put a halt to the forward momentum of the decades following World War II. Fuel shortages meant getting around wasn't as easy as it had been in previous decades; houses built in the forties and fifties were starting to show wear; and in the sixties and early seventies, white baby boomers who had been given the gift of a healthy economy and the bright, shiny future outside the cities where their elders had lived and toiled rejected many of the traditions, norms, and laws that in some cases had been in place for centuries.

With the emerging generation gap came a rejection of what previous generations considered the American Dream. The narrative changed.

The suburbs were bland and bourgeois, no longer the space-age neighborhoods of tomorrow that they once were. The shine had worn off, but developers kept building more homes and neighborhoods, and people kept moving to them despite housing market crises popping up throughout every one of the last three decades of the twentieth century.

Fortune 500 companies moved outside cities, big box stores opened outside cities, and the suburbs kept getting bigger and bigger, often awkwardly.

You could go nearly anywhere in America and find housing developments, rows of ranch homes covered in aluminum siding with green lawns that all looked very similar, situated next to big gaps of empty or wooded areas.

You could drive a little ways and find nondescript business parks that went dark and silent at night, and of course you could find suburbia's Main Street, the mall (more on that later). This is a typical description of the suburbs as people who experienced suburbia from the seventies onward might recall them.

The houses grew bigger, and more space was taken for townhouses, apartments, and especially McMansions.

These homes, as Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell points out, are guilty of many crimes, from a total lack of balance among the parts of the building to the bad craftsmanship all the way to the often horrible landscaping.

"McMansions lack architectural rhythm," she writes in one post. "This is one of the easiest ways to determine between a McMansion and a, well, mansion."

The often gaudy and sometimes straight-up grotesque McMansions grew in stature thanks in large part to developers like Toll Brothers, who, in William Levitt fashion, mass-produced the homes identified by, as Virginia Savage McAlester points out in A Field Guide to American Houses, "complex high-pitched roof[s]" that tend to be "favored for huge custom-designed homes of five thousand to ten thousand square feet and up."

The houses typically employ a mishmash of styles that doesn't make much architectural sense (columns on a colonial or craftsman revival home, for instance).

As Leigh Gallagher writes in her book "The End of the Suburbs," "Provenance and accuracy weren't as important — it was size and scale and how much it glittered that mattered."

You also saw blossom this idea that no matter what critics said about the suburbs, an old-timey feel could be built in newer communities where everything was laid out according to plans that said how every little thing was supposed to look. The look would create a certain feel, and the idea was that people would pay big money because these places felt like they came from a simpler time.

As we've seen when it comes to suburbia, nothing goes according to plan.

Long Grove, Illinois, is one of those places: It has its share of McMansions and a promise that the village would maintain a semi-rural atmosphere. It was once indeed a "long grove," before white settlers came along. There's still grass growing wild, and some of the hickory trees there were around long before the neighborhood.

The Village Tavern on Old McHenry Road claims to be the oldest restaurant and tavern in Illinois, dating back to 1847. Private roads are encouraged to limit traffic. Despite the buildup over the years, it still feels like there's a lot of open space.

I know all of this not because I researched it, but because I lived there. My family had done well enough throughout the eighties that my father felt an upgrade right before the start of the nineties was in order.

Our progression is a very American story: my father was born in Europe right after the war to Jewish parents who barely survived the Nazis.

When they came to America, his parents worked and worked and worked until they finally found a niche-enough business, a little hole that nobody else was filling (they manufactured wafer candy, produced inexpensively and sold at a low price; the boast I heard was they outsold American staples like Oreos in the eighties), and moved from the city to the suburbs.

In the seventies they eventually ended up in the Chicagoland suburb of Morton Grove, where my family finally became homeowners in America, purchasing a cool-looking modern ranch home with a cross-hipped roof and some cool midcentury flourishes.

After my parents separated, most of my childhood was spent living all around the Chicagoland area. I was shuttled between both parents' various homes, including the house in Morton Grove my grandparents had purchased a decade earlier that my father lived in for a brief time after my grandmother passed and my grandfather retired to Florida. Eventually he sold that house and settled in Long Grove.

In a McMansion.

Used by permission from The Sprawl (Coffee House Press, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Jason Diamond

Jason Diamond is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. His first book was "Searching for John Hughes."


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