Suburbs offer only a facade of community

CHAMPAIGN, Ill., (U-Wire) — If it’s a typical weekday, Cheryl Cardarelli’s alarm is ringing at 4:50 a.m. The suburban Washington, D.C., accountant shifted her schedule so she’d have more time in the morning to get things done before rush hour begins. When she would run errands in the afternoon, “she was often late picking up her two-year-old because of rush hour traffic,” reports a recent Washington Post article. She rises in the nick of time.
Most D.C. commuters need to be on the road by 5:30 a.m. to ensure they don’t get stuck in rush hour traffic, according to traffic reporter Bob Marbourg. “With their schedules clogged by long workdays, clogged roads, errands, exercise, household chores and children’s activities, some people have decided that the only way to cram everything in is to rise earlier,” the article concludes.
Why do people choose as the reward for success a long commute, little free time and a house that’s empty much of the day? Probably because a big suburban house defines success. That definition, however, is an extremely empty one.
Phillip Langdon writes in his book, “A Better Place to Live,” that, “In the 1990s … American suburbs foster social isolation, dependence on the automobile and long commutes, contributing to family distress and civic decay.” Langdon is not some hippie or die-hard city dweller. He is senior editor of Progressive Architecture magazine.
Today, the average suburb lacks a sense of community, existing only as a place residents sleep. At the same time, it displays the worst in American parochialism, with inefficient and sometimes corrupt city governments and an outlook that views outsiders warily.
Jonathan Kozol, in his book “Savage Inequalities,” documents how residents of East Saint Louis, Ill., are not welcome in neighboring — and much more affluent — Fairview Heights. To some of these people, a gate to keep the wrong people out is a tangent symbol of progress. A Boston Globe story reports that people in a gated community outside Chicago “see their gate as a sensible civic improvement, not a symbolic betrayal of the social contract.”
If suburbanites cared about that, they never would have left the old neighborhood. The problem is what it does to them. The two things that did the most to create the suburbs, automobiles and television, also create the suburban ills of today.
The book “The Lost City” describes how TV took center stage at the genesis of modern suburbia in the 1950s. People bought TV dinners, TV trays and featured the miracle in the middle of their rec rooms and lives. Now, with mom and dad never home, a generation of latchkey kids vegetate as Bruce Springsteen’s 57 channels with nothing on mutates into a satellite feeding 507 channels with nothing on — except Comedy Central, that’s pure brilliance.
Automobiles have also shaped the suburb. Without them, no one would live 20 miles away from their workplace. They allowed city residents to get closer to nature. However, today, dependence on the automobile creates only headaches. Suburbanites can’t walk to work or even the store. They need cars. Cars cost money, though. According to Langdon, the average suburban family spends a quarter of its income on automobiles — gas, insurance and the cars themselves. That doesn’t even include taxes for more roads and the amount of space a garage takes up.
That also doesn’t count time spent in traffic because of bad road design. The modern suburb has replaced the traditional grid pattern with a series of isolated streets that feed into the arterial road — the highway that goes through the center of town and is always congested. The streets are designed to flow like a sewer system does.
Life also blurs in the suburban netherworld. Naperville looks like Orland Park and, for that matter, Bartlett, Tenn., a suburb of Memphis. They, and suburbs like them, from Florida to Washington have a Home Depot, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Barnes & Noble. This also applies to life. The supermarkets are open 24 hours a day, as are most megastores. The stores stock everything anyone could want. While this is very convenient, it blurs life. If there are no limits, what is left to wish for?
The lack of a defined community also feeds into a suburban lack of community. The ethnic Chicago neighborhoods of the ’50s depicted in “The Lost City” were filled with deep links. The housewife knew the corner butcher, who was willing to extend the family credit. Try that at a suburban Dominick’s. The men let off steam at the neighborhood bar. Everyone attended mass on Sunday. None of these community-building events happen in the typical suburb.
According to sociologist Amatai Etzioni, isolation erodes mental stability. Individuals are not able to function effectively without deep links, in other words, community. As Langdon points out, it is no coincidence that teen suicide rates have quadrupled since 1958. Networks that could have helped troubled teens in the past do not exist in suburbia, creating generations of isolated teenagers.
The new communities also have no permanence. People don’t build houses for themselves; developers build them to make money. Corporate employees are constantly getting transferred. According to the census bureau, one in five Americans moves every year. So an ever-changing cast of suburbanites lives in houses with perfunctory, bland construction. Comparing Naperville and an older suburb, the Atlantic concluded, “In Naperville, it seems much more possible not to know your neighbors.” Is it any wonder they don’t invest much in their communities?
They don’t even feel like communities. Instead of neighborhood bars and shops, they have corporate monoliths not based in the community where residents definitely are not known. The richness of city life at its best is simply not present. Suburbanites have big houses that are always empty, children in good schools they never see, and malls and stores with everything anyone could want except a personal connection to the people who use them.
What is the inanity of suburbia? In leaving for better lives and better communities, suburbanites destroyed the cities, but didn’t find anything better, only a new set of ills. Suburbanites are living the facade of the good life at the expense of everyone else.

Michael Richards’ column originally appeared in Tuesday’s University of Illinois Daily Illini.