Like many of his generation, which he identifies as younger Gen Xers and older millennials, Jason Diamond grew up in the suburbs but chose to settle as an adult in a large city, reversing the movement of his parents and grandparents from the cities to the suburbs. For Diamond, questions about the geography of American life—where and how we live—have proved to be fruitful material. His first book, In Search of John Hughes, was an unconventional memoir told through the lens of that director’s much-loved films, including Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. His new book, The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs is a collection of essays that examines the ways the suburbs have shaped American culture, from films like Back to the Future and LadyBird to Garage Rock to the fiction of William Gibson, John Cheever, and Celeste Ng.
In some ways, Diamond’s basic argument that the suburbs, in which a majority of Americans live, have shaped the development of culture over the last several decades seems obvious, yet it’s a truth that is often forgotten, as so much of our cultural production is rooted in urban areas. It’s easy to subscribe to the overly simplified notion that vitality and innovation reside in the cities while the ‘burbs are staid and uniform. Diamond digs in and finds a more complicated reality, examining the history of early model communities like Llewellyn Park, Illinois; Roland Park, Maryland; and Levittown, New York—towns whose early design principles were utopian and futuristic. The book is animated by Diamond’s own ambivalence toward his subject. While he admits that he hated the suburbs while growing up in them, the experience of researching the book has given him cause to celebrate the weirdness of America’s suburbs—and to hope for their future.
I talked recently with Jason about his inspiration for The Sprawl, the impact of the pandemic on suburban life, and how we might embrace the best that the suburbs have to offer.
The Sprawl takes a defining feature of American culture—suburban living—and examines it from multiple angles. How did you come to write this book?
It was definitely an evolution of thought. Having grown up in the suburbs and leaving at pretty much the first opportunity I had, I never really gave much thought to where I came from. I also became really tied to cities like Chicago, New York, etc., because of work. I’d go on assignments and pretty much everywhere I went was a city. Then it was really two things: I started spending a lot of time at my in-laws suburban home, using it as a getaway where I could write and think and edit without the constant honking and the jackhammers and the lack of solitude that comes with city living. I’m a people person by nature, but I’m also a writer and like my quiet.
So there was realizing that, yes, I actually like the suburbs more than I had really thought and then my first book came out. It was a memoir about growing up in the suburbs and being obsessed with the work of the director John Hughes. In order to write that book, not only did I have to rewatch a lot of movies about teens in the suburbs, but I also had to go back to those places I swore I’d escaped. And what I realized is those places weren’t really as bad as I thought when I was 15. I mean, everybody hates where they’re from at 15. It’s normal. So as I was realizing that, I started touring for my book, and the thing that people who I’d talk to would say was “I was also a weird kid in the suburbs,” or something like that. And it got me thinking about what unites me with them. How people are so quick to bash these places while never really thinking about how much the suburbs produce and also why so much of our culture makes its way out of suburbia. I started from there and I realized there’s no one specific answer, but a bunch of different factors.
You did a lot of research, including visiting many of the suburbs that you discuss in the book. Did you encounter any major surprises in your travels?
I started really traveling for this book at the end of Trump’s first year, and after the way the election went, I was worried about leaving the comfort of my little bubble. That was really what surprised me the most. As somebody who travels a lot, I started getting nervous about something like going into a place that voted Trump, like they were going to smell the journalist on me and run me out of town or something. That isn’t to say there aren’t places where journalists need to be careful, but I didn’t encounter much of that on my trips and I think it helped me retain a tiny bit of faith in America. And the more people I talked to, the more my prior feelings about suburbia changed.
The Sprawl takes an interesting look at the utopian ideals underlying the founding of the earliest American suburbs, while acknowledging that they were only designed for a select few–basically, white people, though this is certainly something that is changing. Do you think the ‘burbs will ever be able to escape their reputation for conformity and exclusion?
Not so sure it is a case of escaping as it is overcoming. I think suburbia, at its core, has been about escaping for many. And I think part of overcoming that legacy that is still very pervasive today means these places will have to change, become actual communities that not only embrace and include everybody, but actually continue to develop and grow. I think the big problem with many of the suburban places I went to was stagnation. These places are built and that’s it, that’s what it is. Maybe they’ll continue to build, but they don’t continue to grow.
Growth is important. You keep building and that’s the sprawl. It’s more car dealerships and chain restaurants and stuff that the next suburb and the suburb after that already has. That, to me, is one of the big draws in the city versus suburb discussion is that while you always have a new generation discovering the cities and an older one kvetching that it isn’t like it used to be, at least cities tend to evolve. The good news is that if there’s ever a time for the suburbs to grow, it’s now. Make it easier for people to walk around them and entice small, independent businesses to open up in them. Make them communities, not just places.
The book must be appearing under very different circumstances than you could have imagined while you were working on it. Has the pandemic changed any of your views about suburban versus city living? Do you think we will see more people fleeing the cities for backyards and easier social distancing?
It’s odd, because I felt like this book was timely given the fact that numbers pointed to the fact that more Millennials were moving back to the suburbs pre-Covid, but things obviously took a turn. Now I find myself wondering this a lot. And the truth is that whether there’s a pandemic or not, the suburbs are always going to be appealing to people, especially after a few years of grinding it out in a city. I’ve lived in New York for almost 20 years now and just a normal day in the city can wear you down. And I don’t think that will change once we start returning to some kind of normal. I think people will keep moving to the suburbs. The hope is that the suburbs are prepared and that the people moving there are willing to work to make these places sustainable communities, or if they’re going to fall into the trap that their parents and grandparents did, that the suburbs are a place of comfort, that all you have to do is mow your lawn and pay your taxes and the rest will figure itself out. I’m hopeful that people my age and younger will put in the work because, in theory, the suburbs could be great.
If you could preserve a single cultural artifact documenting suburban life for some future alien civilization, what would it be, and why?
That’s tough. If they have the capabilities to watch movies I’d say a DVD of Blue Velvet. That’ll probably get them wondering what the hell we were up to.
The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs
By Jason Diamond
Coffee House Press
August 25, 2020