Revenge of the Suburbs

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “ Uncharted ,” a series about the world we’re leaving behind, and the one being remade by the pandemic.

L ucy Honeychurch grew up at Windy Corner, a comfortable estate in a polite enclave outside London. It was pleasant in the way suburbs always are: The neighbors were friendly, and the environment, free from the noise and grime of the city, was perfect for children. Her father, who had built the house, took pride in situating his family amid “the best society obtainable.”
But Honeychurch found the people dull and their aspirations banal. The neighbors were pleasant, but their “identical interests and identical foes,” as she put it, became suffocating. Suburbia, she concluded, was actually a horror.
Honeychurch might as well be a Millennial Brooklynite media professional prepping for the launch of negroni season at the local gastropub, or an activist shaking her fist at local NIMBYs opposed to denser, transit-and-biking-friendly infill development. But no, she is the protagonist in E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room With a View, a biting critique of Edwardian English life, including the drab boredom of suburbia.
By the time Forster was writing, people had been mocking the suburbs for centuries. In the late middle ages, the agrarian and mercantile peasants of the European suburbium were mostly seen as underclasses to the urban gentry. The 18th-century London neighborhoods of Marylebone, Mayfair, and others continued that tradition . In 1897, the martians of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds began their wrath there, on the outskirts, where life was deemed so wretched as to earn even the extraterrestrials’ first strike. That scorn persisted: “ Little boxes, all the same ,” went a popular Malvina Reynolds song about cookie-cutter homes in 1962. The same sneer perseveres today .
[ Read: A defense of the suburbs ]
And yet, people have always loved suburban life. U.S. cities have been growing at their edges for a century and a half. Country living of the Windy Corner sort evolved into the “ streetcar suburbs ” of the early 20th century, offering a comfortable life just a carriage ride from town. After World War II, mass-developed subdivisions followed, compelled by a housing crisis and emboldened by racist government-housing subsidies , white flight, and the sheer size of the North American continent. Like pornography, you know a suburb when you see it: large expanses of low-slung buildings, where residences are separated from commerce, where industry is mostly absent, where family life thrives inside detached homes that stipple meandering streets flanked by lawns and dotted with mailboxes. More than half of Americans , 175 million of us, live in communities like these now, most for the same reasons as our forebears.
Or we live in a slightly more urban version of them, because now, everywhere is the suburbs....