End of Suburbia

Last night I had the chance to view the film End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream at the University City Public Library which was sponsored by Subterranean Books. The film features a variety of experts in the fields of energy and makes the connections between dwindling oil-resources, the expansion of suburbia, US war policy, and health and environmental concerns.

This documentary tells the story of the beginning of suburbia in America. In the late 1800’s and the beginning of the 1900’s the first American suburbs were built and were planned with main streets and generally had the same kind of planning that American citied did and were accessible to the entire community. These suburbs allowed the upper-middle class to get away from the city and still be in sustainable communities.

Next came the street-car suburbs and for those of you unfamiliar with streetcars and have only seen them on post cards of San Francisco streetcars used to be in every major American city and were the major source for public transportation in much of America. Streetcars lines before World War II were built to go outside of the city limits ( although only slightly) and wherever there was a streetcar stop a small suburb would develop around it would be made up of the upwardly mobile.

Then came the Second World War, an event that would change America and the world forever, and when the millions of Americans returned from battle overseas in 1945 and 1946 they all sought to buy homes as they were getting married by the millions. This created a housing crisis in American cities and massive suburbs were built all around the nation. The promise of suburbia was the promise to get away from a dirty and crowded urban life and move into a more country and rural farm-like setting. Of course, as the film points out, suburban living has nothing to do with country farm living because these suburbs have actually taken away farmland and destroyed local ecosystems. There is also no connection to the land in suburbia outside of mowing the lawn and planting flowers; no one is living off the land. What the documentary doesn’t take into account is the fact that there was in fact a housing shortage in the late 1940’s and much of the 1950’s and that new housing was needed; the proper argument should have been that if new suburbs were to be built they should have been built in a sustainable and environmentally and socially friend way.

During this period there was also an almost complete gutting of many American cities as the population, resources and businesses fled and those left in the city often were living in sub-standard conditions where their had once been prosperity in the cities. This coincided with a large influx of African-Americans from the South in the Great Migration (which the film did not point out) and African-Americans, who until then had been a mostly rural and Southern population, flooded Northern and Midwestern cities.

From the 1960’s and through the 1980’s saw white flight in response to this African-American migration (which the film also did not point out) and white families fled to suburbia in search of schools that were not full of black children. Because of the newfound poverty in the city many cities also became havens for crime and became very violent and still more families, black and white, fled the city for those reasons.

The new suburb was not based on any kind of a central grid and did not have community integration and neighborliness as a model; rather it was built to shield people from one another and to discourage close-knit neighborhoods and instead of streets that were connected and easy to navigate the cul-de-sac became the norm. The cul-de-sac became an island of isolation from the rest of the world where you could raise your family without any outside influences, and not be forced to deal with other human beings and you could be the king of your acre.

This suburb that exists until today is based on one thing; cheap energy, i.e. cheap oil. Why is this? Because you can no longer walk anywhere, there is nothing in walking distance, most of suburbia is not served by public transportation, people now routinely drive up to an hour a day or more to get to work, drive dozens of miles to go shopping and are not close to anything they do so the automobile is central to their lifestyle. The only way this lifestyle can be sustained is with an abundance of cheap oil and natural gas and as those resources decline suburbia will be in trouble, that is the point the film makes, and I agree with this assessment to a point. I believe that the modern-suburban lifestyle will be in danger in the future, but I believe that those affluent and self-insulated suburbs will be able to maintain their position but they will become more local oriented and less dependent on urban centers for work and entertainment. The other suburbs, those where the middle-class now lives, will become the new slums of America as those with money will either flee to the cities where there is sustainable community living or flee to the outer suburbs. In my opinion these will also be the political fault lines; those in the once again prosperous cities will be on the left and those in the secluded and isolated deep suburbs will be on the right and in the middle will be the poor.

The new suburban slum will be much worse than any slum America has ever seen. Why is this? Because suburbs, as a rule, and certainly the middle-class and poorer suburbs, do not have very good or durable architecture. Go into NYC, DC, Chicago and St. Louis and you can see that the urban slums may be poor, but the buildings remain in very good condition because they were built to last. The suburban buildings and homes were not built to last and if they are not well-maintained quickly become sub-standard. Cities also are better equipped to deal with social and community problems and the suburbs are not. These will be the new American slums that will look like the shantytowns of South Africa; the poor will head into the city to serve those at the sushi and latte bars and will head the other direction to serve the fast food restaurants and big box stores.

The film does a good job of pointing out the fact that as energy resources decline in the world their will be a fight for these resources. The Project for a New American Century and other neo-conservative groups have made it clear that for America to militarily and economically dominate the world it needs to control the world energy resources and the biggest source of these resources is in the Middle-East and the Caspian Sea region ( most of these areas are populated by Muslims). While, I agree with the film that US policy in these areas is heavily driven by oil (and in other regions such as Venezuela and Bolivia) I don’t believe that oil is the primary rationale for the war in Iraq; rather I believe that the war against political Islam (i.e. the democratic will of the people) is the main rationale. This also leads to the conclusion that as nations such as China, Japan, India and Brazil become more militarily powerful they will be more aggressive in their confrontations with the US over energy. Also, as the energy crisis gets bigger globalization which is dependent on cheap energy, will find it difficult to survive in the manner in which it is currently practiced.

The film praises New Urbanism, the trend back to the city and the need to urbanize the suburbs, and I also am in praise of this movement. It neglects to mention that many families today, who cannot afford private schools or afford to live in safe urban neighborhoods, are all but forced out of the cities and this feeds into the problem. Cities all across the country are becoming revitalized as the educated and affluent flock back to them, the key is however, in not displacing the residents who are already in the cities and making sure the city can be a home to people of all economic and racial backgrounds and thus far New Urbanism has been lackluster in this area. Metro areas such as the DC area (Northern VA and Southern MD) and Southern California that are heavily tied to suburban living and the automobile, if a new technology is not invented, will resemble the massive suburban slums of Latin America in the future.

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3 thoughts on “End of Suburbia

  1. Salaams: How can they talk about the growth of American suburbs and *not* mention the Great Migration and White flight?? That seems very odd to me. — UmmZee

  2. I’ve never lived in the suburbs a day in my life and never will. I despise what they are and what they stand for. I’m a country boy, and I’m comfortable there or in the cities, but get me anywhere near suburbia and I feel like gettin sick. Upski is much more eloquent on the subject than I am, if you haven’t already, you should check out “No More Prisons”, which actually has very little to do with Prison.

    P.S. My newest post involved race and hip hop, your $.02 is always welcome :-P

  3. Generally speaking, I agree with what you’ve written here. The thing that surpises me is the shortsightedness and resistance of Americans (especially in the West) to the idea of creating population density within the cities. I lived in Arizona for over 20 years, and the sprawl of the major cities there (Phoenix and its suburbs, plus Tucson) has become all-consuming. One has only to look at maps of these cities from the 80s and 90s to see how stupendously large the cities have become. Moreover, in 2001, the city of Phoenix voted against a proposition that would have begun forcing developers to create a higher urban density instead of continuing to expand out into the desert. Of course, people wonder why the mass transit system (to take one issue) is so lousy there.

    On the other hand, my travels in Europe and Asia since 2001 have been enlightening in showing the benefits of higher urban densities, not only in obvious issues like mass transit, but in other areas like retail commerce. Imagine seeing throngs of shoppers walking the downtown streets of Geneva, Switzerland (as I did in 2001). Downtown merchants in both Phoenix and my hometown in upstate NY (I shant mention the name) have been crying for decades about the lack of shoppers. And yet, this issue is non-existant here in Asia.

    As gas prices get higher over the next few decades, perhaps Americans will get wise. (Somehow, I doubt it.)

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