Five myths about the suburbs

By William Upski Wimsatt
Friday, February 11, 2011; 12:00 PM

In the early 1990s, I wrote a book called "Bomb the Suburbs" celebrating hip-hop culture and cities ("bomb" is slang for writing graffiti). The angry title captured the mood of many of my fellow Chicagoans: resentment at white flight and the asphyxiation of city and small-town life by chain stores and sidewalk-free dead zones.

But today, the suburbs aren't what they used to be. Since more than 50 percent of Americans live in them, suburbs have become more like cities, while cities have become more like suburbs, complete with gated communities and big-box stores. For better or worse, the suburbs reflect America, so let's dispense with a few misunderstandings about where most of us call home.

1. Suburbs are white, middle-class enclaves.

Not anymore. One-third of suburbanites across the country are racial or ethnic minorities, up from 19 percent in 1990. Students in suburban public schools are 20 percent Hispanic, 15 percent African American and 6 percent Asian American.

Nor are the suburbs necessarily wealthy. From 1999 to 2008, according to the Brookings Institution, suburban poverty grew a whopping 25 percent. In our 95 largest metro areas, poverty grew five times as fast in the suburbs as in adjoining cities. Today, one-third of the nation's poor live in suburbs.

For example, Chicago's southern suburbs include some of the poorest places in America - municipalities such as Robbins, Phoenix and Harvey - just like the city's South Side. But they're spread out, with limited public transit to shopping, schools and jobs.

2. Suburbs aren't cool.

In August, Travel and Leisure featured the nation's 26 "coolest suburbs" that "blow up the stereotype" of these communities as "boring, conformist places." The magazine focused on older suburbs with traditional town centers, such as Mt. Lebanon, Pa.; Birmingham, Mich.; Lakewood, Ohio; and other "culinary and cultural hot spots."

Just consider the Washington region. Did you ever imagine that spoken-word poetry would take root in Rosslyn, Vienna, Chevy Chase and Kensington? Did you ever think that the District's go-go music scene - largely exiled from the city by higher rents and a yuppie-friendly Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration - would take refuge in Prince George's County? Did you ever dream that Busboys and Poets could thrive near the characterless condos of Shirlington?

3. Suburbs are a product of the free market.

Suburbs are a big government handout if there ever was one. Taxpayers are on the hook for the new roads, water and sewer lines, schools, parks, and police and fire services that make it possible for "self-made" suburbanites to live on the outskirts of town.

And building suburbs is expensive. A 2008 study by Arthur C. Nelson, a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, estimated that it costs as much as $13,426 per resident when a new suburban development is built. In sprawl-plagued Atlanta, property tax rates rose 22 percent from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s as suburban development boomed. But during that same period in Portland, Ore., where the state protected rural land from suburban encroachment with restrictive zoning laws in 1973, property taxes dropped 29 percent.

Suburbia's municipal fragmentation also makes government inefficient. New Jersey is rife with corruption in part because of the expense and complexity of maintaining 566 separate municipalities, each with its own city government, school districts and police force. If Gov. Chris Christie wants to cut government waste, he should lean on adjacent municipalities with duplicative services to merge.

4. Suburbs are politically conservative.

In the 2010 midterms, a majority of America's suburbanites voted Republican. Until progressives create an equivalent to Premiere Radio Networks (which carries Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh), conservatives will have an advantage in communicating with suburban voters during long commutes. Ten million to 20 million people a week, for instance, tune in to Limbaugh for up to 15 hours on 600 local stations.

But don't think the suburbs will vote Republican forever. In 2006 and 2008, suburbanites split the vote. Virginia's 11th Congressional District, representing chunks of Fairfax and Prince William counties, is a typical swing district. In 2000, it went for George W. Bush 52 percent to 45 percent. In 2008, it went for Obama 57 percent to 42 percent and elected Democrat Gerry Connolly to Congress, then in 2010 reelected Connolly amid huge Democratic losses nationwide. As suburbs become more like cities - denser and more diverse - they are likely to trend progressive in the decades to come.

5. Suburbanites don't care about the environment.

According to the American Farmland Trust, the United States loses more than 1.4 million acres of farmland, forest and wetlands to suburban sprawl each year. Between 1982 and 2007, sprawl devoured an area the size of Illinois and New Jersey combined.

But suburbanites are becoming more ecologically aware. Some Cleveland suburbs are partnering with the city to buy solar panels. According to The Washington Post, the number of farmers markets is surging around the country - in Chicago, there are more of them in the suburbs than in the city. And suburbanites are using online carpools such as eRideShare.com to cut commuting costs. Suburban D.C. even has its own brand of ride-sharing called slugging. The practice began during the energy crisis in the 1970s to take advantage of HOV lanes, and as instability in the Middle East pushes oil prices near $100 per barrel, it's on the rise.

Many suburbs are also beating cities when it comes to recycling. Chicago, supposedly green, recycles less than 19 percent of its waste, compared with 40 percent in Arlington, Va. And a place like Community Forklift - a vast warehouse in Edmonston, Md., where used building materials are resold for a fraction of their original cost - couldn't afford to pay rent in the District.

For the eco-minded, there's even a silver lining to population growth: If the United States adds 110 million more people by 2050 as the census predicts, suburbs will have to grow denser, more walkable and more public-transit-friendly, increasing our sense of shared identity.

Everyone with a prejudice against the suburbs will have to get over it. Even me.


William Upski Wimsatt is the author, most recently, of "Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs."

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