Suburban Blues

October 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Who wouldn’t want to escape this? This is Pittsburgh, 1926, but it could be any number of cities. You can just hear the noise of industry, feel the sweat and soot and sorrows of people struggling to get a toehold amid the density and din.

It’s no wonder that when offered the chance people moved out to the shiny, new American suburbs where you could own your own home, raise your kids, feel safe, all of it close enough to the city center so you could easily commute to work and scoot back at day’s end to the serenity and safety of your suburban world.

Nowhere did that idea take hold harder than here in my home city of Los Angeles, originally nothing more than a stitched- together map of suburbs. With the influx of Midwesterners in the 1920s, builders laid out close to 3,200 subdivisions and 250,000 single-family homes. By 1930, 94 percent of the dwellings were homes like that.

In short, the family turned inward to its own sacred space, there to live out its private dreams and dramas. Fast forward and the entire country became subdivided. We are now a predominantly suburban nation, one that is only beginning to reckon with what that means and what it has cost us in terms of health and happiness.

The most obvious fact is the car and that we no longer walk anywhere. Health researchers are saying that the country’s current epidemics of obesity and hypertension have suburban roots. But underneath the health costs is the psychological cost: A specific suburban loneliness. I remember as a child walking the streets of my pretty safe suburb feeling dislocated, lonesome.

Where was everybody? I could sometimes smell their dinners cooking or see the flickers of their TV sets, but I didn’t see them or hear them. It was all so antiseptic, so without sensory punch– no pizza smells from the corner joint, no garlic and garbage and that olfactory urban tangle I would so love when I first set foot in New York City at age 11.

What you can smell in the suburbs, though, is fear– fear of the other, of strangers, and a withdrawal from the public spaces in which city life is lived, and civic life, for that matter. It is no coincidence that the more suburban we have become the less active we’ve become in our civic participation, in voting, for example.

The good news is we’re finally beginning to look at all this, at just how deep the suburban mentality has taken hold and how much land we’ve gobbled up trying to get away from each other. This rethinking is being called the new urbanism, and I see pieces of it all around me, in cities like New York and Boston and Chicago, even in my own LA: Older people moving back into cities, people who’ve raised children in the suburbs and now want back a rich, walkable urban life; young couples deciding to raise their children in the city.

Forget the shiny new condos and golf courses. Give me streets to walk and museums and theaters and restaurants and people to bump into, all kinds of people. Even here in my Westside suburb, the city has grown up around me.

There are now banks and restaurants and stores I can actually walk to. There are even apartments atop the street side businesses– small signs admittedly, but signs nonetheless that we have begun to see the wages of our suburban dream: Endless sprawl and expanding waistlines, and an endemic loneliness. I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.