As coronavirus locked down cities across the country and work from home orders liberated office workers from daily commutes, many people suddenly found themselves returning, either temporarily or permanently, to the suburbs so many of them had fled. Jason Diamond’s new book, The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs, arrives just in time to contextualize these spaces. Diamond dives deep into a cultural analysis rich with literary, musical, and Hollywood references and examines the historical, social context of suburban sprawl, from post-war Levittowns to the contemporary decline of shopping malls. The Sprawl offers an insightful examination of the type of places the majority of Americans call home.
Diamond, a native of greater Chicago’s suburbs, presents the narrative through his personal experience growing up as a child of divorced parents. Straddling the line between Gen X and Millennial, he notes his childhood had been “for all intents and purposes, an unhappy one.” The sprawl didn’t help.
The suburban sprawl exacerbated Diamond feelings of isolation, especially since he was caught between the two households of his mother and father. The decentralized nature of suburbs and the greater travel distance between workplaces and homes ultimately mean less time for personal connections. This issue sits at the crux of Diamond’s analysis. Despite seemingly fulfilling our desire to convene with nature and offering idyllic appearing homes with plenty of personal space and freedom, the reality is much darker, lonelier, and bleaker in the sprawl.
The book explores a limited history of suburbia’s development. The narrative begins with early agenda-based utopian communities, to the post-war construction of Levittowns creating white middle-class neighborhoods, to modern suburban iterations like Seaside, Florida, a planned community guided by the philosophy of New Urbanism. Diamond is more focused on situating suburbs in our culture than the history of urban planning, but he does jump headfirst into one essential historical element — racism.
Levittown, seven large, mass-produced post-war suburbs built by Levitt & Son developers outright barred Black homeowners from purchasing property, and “gentlemen’s agreements” often kept people of color out of other neighborhoods for decades. But to think these problems have been solved with the Fair Housing Act or modern iterations of suburbs would be a mistake.
“I only saw white people,” Diamond notes as he explores Seaside, Florida. The promise of New Urbanism was better suburbs, and the town presents an idealized version of America, a literal movie set since it served as the location of The Truman Show film, but one that has grown astronomically expensive and continues a culture of de facto segregation.
The vision of New Urbanism’s ideology intends to address many of the factors contributing to suburbia’s sense of isolation. Superficially, New Urbanist communities offer an improvement, but according to Diamond, they remain merely facades. He draws comparisons to fictional literary suburbs like Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas, where one child is left to suffer for the collective happiness of the larger community. The suburbs provide salvation for some, Diamond says, but adds, “You can’t escape America’s ghosts. Streets, towns, and states are named after the tributes and words of indigenous people who once lived there.”
Film and television has been hugely influential on the way we perceive suburbs, and Diamond pays particular attention to the films of John Hughes. Set primarily in Chicago-area suburbia, John Hughes films from Sixteen Candles to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Home Alone depict not just the idealized version of the sprawl, but also captures the isolation and loneliness Diamond attributes to these areas. The casts of these films are also predominantly white, like the suburbs they depict.
In some moments, Diamond slides towards film criticism rather than focusing on suburban experience, but he always brings it back to the sprawl. Hughes’s films have been hugely influential and not just at reflecting the suburban reality, but for crafting our expectations, by depicting the “northern Chicago suburbs into the place people worldwide pictured when they thought of the American suburbs.” There is a self-fulfilling feedback loop. We consume culture that tells how the suburbs are, and so they become that thing.
Even though sprawl exists as a superficially idealized place, the suburbs are no longer thriving. Young people left. Malls closed. Racism persists. The crisis of the suburbs might be a portent to greater societal ills, Diamond posits, saying “the growing disillusionment with the suburbs lines up almost perfectly with the growing disillusionment with America in general.”
The Sprawl is a uniquely American look at the suburban phenomenon. And Diamond is right. If the American suburb fails, so fails the American way of life. What we have to grapple with, as a society, is how the American way of life has been built on oppression and exploitation, and the American suburb is the result. The suburbs provide comfort, but at a cost we can’t just pave over.
At the heart of this book is a central question: what does the suburban experience really mean? Diamond cleverly answers this with references to viral suburban house listings featuring sex dungeons alongside close readings of literary greats like Shirley Jackson and John Cheever. Diamond is a keen cultural critic leveraging a deep reservoir of knowledge. The Sprawl leads us on a journey through the promise of suburbia while expertly peeling back the curtain. Diamond shows us the often unpleasant machinations of the suburb, while ultimately leaving us with the tools to draw our own conclusions.
By Jason Diamond
Coffee House Press
Published Aug. 25, 2020