Myths About the Suburbs

The Washington Post recently published an editorial by William Upski Wimsatt which addresses some of the propaganda used to stigmatize life in the suburbs. The editorial debunks many of the perceptions that urban planners perpetuate as they change quiet communities with good schools into concrete jungles. The editorial is probably most notable because of the author’s background.

Mr. Wimsatt is most widely known as the author of a book called Bomb the Suburbs. The author describes the book like this: 

“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.”

Amazon.com describes the book as posing the question, “Should graffiti writers organize to tear up the cities, or should they really be bombing the ‘burbs?” and notes that rapper Tupac Shakur said, “The best book I read in prison.”

So I think it is safe to say that Mr. Wimsatt doesn’t look at suburban life through the eyes of a rich, racist white guy. Since Mr. Wimsatt doesn’t fit the suburban stereotype maybe he will actually get the attention of the people who dismiss the opinions of those who do.

Like when Mr. Wimsatt addresses the myth: 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.

Or the myth: 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.”

Or: Suburbanites don’t care about the environment.

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.

I don’t mean to imply Mr. Wimsatt is a complete sell out when it comes to suburbs. He does seem to believe that people buying the single family home they prefer is somehow subsidized by the people who choose to live in dense, urban settings and he still wants to see the burbs become more urban.

But if the man that wrote Bomb the Suburbs can evolve into the man that now promotes his new book Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs then there is hope. Hope that someday politicians, developers and city planners will also see the error of their ways and stop bombing the suburbs with urban density.

The Washington Post editorial was originally brought to my attention by a reader pointing out an article by Wendell Cox on newgeography.com which you can find here. Mr. Cox does an excellent job of addressing some of the false notions which were still perpetuated in the orginal editorial by Mr. Wimsatt.

And if the coordinated attack on suburban life is something that bothers you I highly recommend you add newgeography.com to your reading list. The website provides a skeptical and objective view of the arguments being used to undermine the suburban communities so many American families love.

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2 thoughts on “Myths About the Suburbs

  1. Interesting post Jim. Somehow though the argument often seems to boil down to all or nothing positions. “Bomb The Suburbs” sounds like it was a full-on assult on the suburbs but I think there is room for some development within the burbs without completlely changing the landscape, so-to-speak.

    Just like the three myths about suburbs you point out, we could point out similar myths about higher density developments. They don’t all equal bad traffic, crime or poverty.

    There is demand for both types of development and neither are better or worse than the other except in the eyes of the people who want to live there.

  2. The other myth that really gets to me is that suburbanites have no “community.” You create the community you want no matter where you are planted. Extroverts will create more community and introverts will choose to have less. It’s not rocket science.

    My husband’s family and extended family live in various rural areas throughout the midwest. Though hundreds of acres may separate their homes, they each have more true “community” than I’ve ever witnessed anywhere.

    Three choices: cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Retain their individual characters and choose the one that floats your boat. What is so hard about that?

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