Life in the Washington suburbs used to be like a walk in space. The emptiness there was fatal without your lifeline and spacesuit -- a job in the city and a car.
Today, the suburban vacuum has been filled with the amenities of the city. Glamorous new department stores, top-dollar restaurants, multicinema complexes and emporiums of the fine arts are capturing the suburban buck close to home. Beyond the city, expanding high technology and service industries provide the jobs that pay that buck.
The result: remarkably self-sufficient colonies in the suburbs.
Tina Stanley, a lifelong Rockville resident, can find whatever she needs along her city's principal thoroughfare. "Everything is centered on the Rockville Pike," said the 22-year-old dental assistant. "Restaurants, shopping malls, fast food places. You start at White Flint and work your way down."
Her boyfriend, Rockvillian Craig Barnes, nodded, "Really, everything you want."
A series of interviews with suburbanites such as Stanley and Barnes and a separate Washington Post telephone poll show that today suburban residents spend most of their leisure time and money outside the District.
The poll of 831 people living in Washington's suburbs -- Alexandria and the counties of Arlington, Charles, Fairfax, Loudoun, Montgomery, Prince George's and Prince William -- reveals that more than 80 percent of the time they choose suburban eateries when they dine out at night; nearly nine times out of 10 they opt to do their nonfood shopping outside the District; about 85 percent of their moviegoing is done in the suburbs; more than half of the concerts they attend are in the suburbs.
Even in the case of live theater, once the exclusive province of the big city, suburbanites four times out of 10 reserve their applause for performances beyond the District line. Only when it comes to visiting museums and historical monuments do suburban residents turn in droves to the District.
The poll demonstrates that the suburbs are increasingly self-contained, but it also shows that suburbanites still use the city. A third come into the District for reasons other than work at least once a week, another third less frequently and the rest rarely, if at all.
While the telephone survey clearly indicates that suburbanites prefer to play close to home, studies by the Census Bureau show that they are more likely to work there as well.
Jobs have moved to the suburbs even faster than people have. As the population in the Washington suburbs between 1970 and 1980 was rising 13 percent, the number of residents working there surged 40 percent. By 1980, two-thirds of all working suburban residents 16 and over had jobs in the suburbs. A recent report by the Greater Washington Research Center shows that in the years between 1977 and 1982, employment in Fairfax County grew by 33 percent and declined almost 2 percent in the District.
The shifting profile of the suburbs is not just local in scope. Across the country, the boost in suburban population has catalyzed job growth there and has even spawned a new breed of commuter. Phillip A. Salopek, a Census Bureau demographer, noted, "Certainly the traditional image has been of people living in the suburbs and traveling into the central city, but our data since 1975 have been showing clearly that's not . . . the most significant commuter movement anymore. It is suburb to suburb."
The suburbs, said Thomas Muller, an Urban Institute economist, "are becoming much more autonomous in terms of their ability to support a wide array of services. That extends to personal services, restaurants, theater and music groups that historically were associated with the central city. This is part of a longer term trend toward decentralization at the large metropolitan level."
For denizens of the outer rings here, that means dinner theater, concerts at Wolf Trap, professional sports at the Capital Centre and socializing at places like Clyde's in Tysons Corner.
"In one month we sold 54 bottles of Dom Perignon, 22 bottles of Taittinger and almost 50 of Moet & Chandon White Star," said Clyde's co-owner John Laytham, bragging on the sophistication of Fairfax County's champagne aficionados.
A taste for Taittinger notwithstanding, the suburbs continue to be a good place to raise a family, go bowling or watch the soaps. That conclusion is supported by interviews conducted in December with 13 current and former Montgomery County residents -- and a diary of their activities on a recent Friday.
The lives of these suburbanites, for the most part, are not filled with gala theatrical openings and jaunts to four-star restaurants. Instead, they revolve around family and community affairs, with time out for the lower-key entertainment opportunities near at hand. The suburban diary that follows shows that, for many, life beyond the city indeed offers "everything you want."