What the Suburb Haters Don’t Understand

If you listen to the experts, much of the place I’m from is not a place at all. Suburban Michigan is full of winding roads dotted with identical houses, strip malls stuffed with chain restaurants and big-box stores, and thoroughfares designed for cars, with pedestrian walkways as an afterthought. The anthropologist Marc Augé coined the term non-places to describe interchangeable, impersonal spaces lacking in history and culture that people pass through quickly and anonymously. Non-places—such as shopping centers, gas stations, and highways—can be found everywhere but seem to particularly proliferate in the suburbs like the one I grew up in. The writer James Howard Kunstler memorably called this sort of landscape “the geography of nowhere.”

In his book of the same title, Kunstler traces the history of the suburbs from the Puritans’ 17th-century conception of private property up to the early 1990s, when The Geography of Nowhere was published. He argues that, enamored with both automobiles and the sheer amount of space in this country, the U.S. built a sprawling empire of suburbs because, as he puts it, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” But this arrangement has proved to be “deeply demoralizing and psychologically punishing,” he told me in an email—not only because the design of suburbia is unsightly but because it is at odds with human connection and flourishing. He doesn’t mince words about what he sees as the consequences of this way of life, writing in his book that “the immersive ugliness of the built environment in the USA is entropy made visible,” and suggesting that America has become “a nation of people conditioned to spend their lives in places not worth caring about.”

This sort of dismissal is a common posture, though few have put it quite so colorfully. Perhaps because of the sometimes bland and homogenous built environment, many people assume the suburbs have a conformist culture too. These places have long been associated with boredom, with a vague, free-floating malaise. (Or, as one writer bluntly put it, “You know it sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why.”) There is a Subreddit with 60,000 members called “Suburban Hell.” All of this adds up to a popular conception of suburbs as indistinct and interchangeable—they are “no-man’s-land,” the “middle of nowhere.” And this idea doesn’t come only from city slickers sneering at “flyover country.” Jason Diamond, the author of the book The Sprawl, said in an interview with Bloomberg that he’s noticed a “self-hatred” among people who come from suburbia.

Yet the majority of Americans live in this “nowhere.” Being precise about the proportion of the U.S. that is suburbia is difficult—the federal government, in much of its data, doesn’t distinguish “suburban” as a category distinct from “rural” and “urban” (perhaps implying that it, too, considers these places not worth caring about). But in the 2017 American Housing Survey, the government asked people to describe their own neighborhoods, and 52 percent classified them as suburban. These neighborhoods aren’t frozen 1950s stereotypes, either; they are evolving places. For instance, once synonymous with segregation, the suburbs are now more diverse than ever.

The point is: A lot of life happens in these places. Where there is life, there is connection and emotion. Where there is connection and emotion, nostalgia follows. And so, yes, decades of policy decisions and corporate development have led to what Kunstler calls the “depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading” landscapes of the suburbs. But at the same time, many people who have called these places home still have a sentimental connection to them, any spiritual degradation notwithstanding. And a curious side effect of the ubiquity of suburban institutions is that I can feel that small spark of recognition—of, dare I say it, “home”—anywhere I encounter it.

To defend my hometown, in part, from the accusations of cultural blandness and lack of history: Ypsilanti, Michigan, is the home of Domino’s Pizza! Of the world’s most phallic building! We were once held in inexplicable thrall for several months to a turkey that camped out in an intersection! Most suburban places, I have to imagine, have their own quirks and unique histories if you care to look for them. But it is also true that for my hometown and many others, these charms are mixed in with, or even obscured by, a whole lot of nowhere.

Much of my youth was spent in these non-places: celebrating birthdays at a strip-mall Red Lobster, my sisters and I shoving Cheddar Bay biscuits in our purses for later; looking out of car windows at beige subdivisions on one side, cornfields on the other; messing around in Target with my friends just for something to do; depending on automobiles to go anywhere or do anything. Would I have been happier, healthier, more independent in a more walkable city? Would my relationships have been richer if we had more intentionally designed public spaces? That’s what macro-level arguments about urban design would seem to imply, but on an individual level, those questions are unanswerable. It was what it was. Sure, I once got lost trying to go for a walk in our subdivision, turned around by the endlessly looping streets. But we did have a lot of fun at Target.

I haven’t lived in Ypsilanti since I was 17, decamping first to a college campus north of Chicago, then to Chicago proper, then to Washington, D.C., where I’ve lived for more than 10 years. Yet at the risk of being one of the “apologists for the ubiquitous highway crud” whom Kunstler derides in his book, I must say that even after all this time, I feel at home in a strip mall. It is familiar; it is my heritage. At least once a year, the winds blow in from the Midwest, and I cannot rest until I make a pilgrimage to an Olive Garden. If home is “nowhere,” and nowhere has spread almost everywhere, then many places can remind you of home.

I know that I’m not the only one who feels a real emotional connection to the corporate trappings of suburbia. The food website Eater had a long-running series of essays called “Life in Chains,” in which writers reflected on the ways chain restaurants had shaped them. One of my favorite icebreakers is to ask people to build the strip mall of their dreams using five chain establishments—and people get very passionate in their responses. (If you’re wondering, mine are: Target, Barnes and Noble, Panera Bread, Ulta, and an AMC movie theater.) During the early pandemic, a writer for Vice found herself longing for the experience of wandering the aisles of a TJ Maxx—and the regular Sundays she spent there with her mother.

Of course, people do crave specificity in the places they’re from, even in suburbia. I think the particular passion people have for those slightly more regional chains—Californians and In-N-Out Burger, southerners and Waffle Houseis evidence of that. No one wants to feel like they’re from nowhere. But life happens where you are, and if where you are is a strip mall by a highway on-ramp, well, you work with what you’ve got.

Admittedly, an aspect of this is sad. For some children of the suburbs, we can feel like our formative tastes and our earliest emotions were hijacked by consumer culture and decades of zoning law. But nostalgia isn’t really a reflection of whether something is good or bad, researchers tell me; quality is essentially irrelevant. What matters is whether something holds meaning for you. And places are “easy for us to attach emotionality to,” Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College who studies nostalgia, told me. Although suburban nostalgia might be stronger for people like me who’ve moved away from the burbs, a place can be an active part of your life and still “cue those old memories” each time you visit, Clay Routledge, a psychologist who directs the Human Flourishing Lab at the nonprofit think tank Archbridge Institute, told me.

Is Taco Bell a gaudy restaurant that serves cheap sodium bombs that all taste basically the same and bear only a passing resemblance to actual Mexican cuisine? Definitely. But I’ll always love it, not just because I think it’s delicious but because that’s where my high-school friends and I would go to pick up sacks of 99-cent bean burritos to bring back for dinner when drama rehearsal was scheduled to run late. So Taco Bell bean burritos, to me, taste like staying at school until 9 p.m. and trying to do homework on the side of the stage between scenes, like the intense friendships of a ragtag group of teens figuring out who they are by pretending to be other people.

“People make a place, and that’s what nostalgia reveals,” Routledge said. Research on what makes people attached to a place shows that the social ties associated with it are a huge factor. In a survey that Routledge did last year, he found that almost three-quarters of Americans reported that their nostalgic memories were associated with close friends and family, as opposed to experiences they had with strangers or alone. Nostalgia for place, it seems, is really nostalgia for people.

The case against suburbia’s design is not just that it’s ugly and repetitive and kind of basic—it’s that it’s actively bad for community. Third places—spots just for hanging out, aside from work or home—are in short supply; homes are clustered far from commercial zones, making it next to impossible to walk safely anywhere. “The only way to be in that public realm is to be in a car, often alone,” Kunstler writes. “Where, then, are you going to have your public assembly? On the median strip of Interstate 87?” Some research suggests that people who live in more walkable neighborhoods are more likely to know their neighbors, and to feel a sense of community.

So this sense of nostalgia for “nowhere” represents, in a sense, the connections I made in a place that is hostile to connection by design. “In every corner of the nation we have built places unworthy of love,” Kunstler writes, and perhaps he’s right. But we love there nonetheless.

This tension is fitting, because nostalgia itself is a “conflicted and bittersweet” emotion, Batcho said. It tugs the homesick person between past and present, between how things were, how they are, and how they could be. Rachel Heiman, an associate professor of anthropology at the New School and the author of Driving After Class, told me that she fears the connection people have to the kinds of spaces they’re familiar with could be a detriment to building new and better kinds of communities. “We can’t just keep building our suburbs the way we are, even if some people are nostalgic for that,” she said. She gave the example of someone who feels safer and more comfortable driving a car than riding public transit, even though public transit is objectively safer. Might they be resistant to supporting new bus or rail routes in their community?

But both Batcho and Routledge told me that contrary to its popular perception as an emotion that holds people back, nostalgia can also be fuel for progress. It can make people more creative, inspired, and motivated: Reflecting on cherished memories of the past can remind people of what they really value. And if there’s a disconnect between what we loved about the past and the way things are now, “that discrepancy can easily remind us that we should move forward,” Batcho said. “We should build better things.”

The feeling that your past is coherently tied to your present and your future is called “self-continuity,” and Routledge’s research shows that nostalgia facilitates it. So feeling nostalgic for the landscapes of suburbia doesn’t necessarily mean I think that’s the best way to design a community—it’s just part of my story. My soft spot for Olive Garden’s huge portions of mediocre fettuccine alfredo is just the vessel for the things I actually value: the feeling of belonging to a place and its people, the comforts of accumulated memories that adhere to spaces.

In the end, whether the suburbs collapse or we build better ones, it’s too late for me—the strip malls are already in my bones.

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