Living In An Asphalt Limbo

During the Memorial Day weekend, I had a conversation with a new resident in Northern Door who was lamenting how far away he lived from the big box stores, the movie theater, etc. When I pointed out that Sturgeon Bay was just a 30- to 40-minute drive, depending on traffic and the speed he chose to travel, he replied, “Yeah, that’s the problem.”

So I asked where he had relocated from and his quick reply was “Northbrook” (a suburb to Chicago’s north). His response gave me considerable pause, but I eventually said, “It probably took you just as long to go to the grocery store that was 10 blocks away in Northbrook as it does for you to drive to Sturgeon Bay, shop, and make it at least part way back up the peninsula. And our scenery during your drive is a lot better.”

I mention all of the above because it led me to spend some time thinking about “suburbs” and “suburban” communities. For example, notice that the word “suburban” is actually a compound of the word “urban,” meaning a city or town, and the prefix “sub.” Now in the context of the word “suburban” the prefix “sub” takes on the meaning “near to.” Yet, the same prefix can also mean “underneath or below” and I found myself wondering whether the individual who coined the term “suburban” had this particular meaning in mind. If I am correct, then the inventor of the term suburban offered an official definition of “a community near a town or city.” The unofficial definition, and what the term’s inventor really meant, however, was “a sprawling community of mismatched buildings crowded together to provide little if any breathing room, liberally bisected by wide lane thoroughfares that are constantly halting the flow of traffic with signals that take an excessive amount of time to change, with little or no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, that should be regarded by any sane individual as beneath contempt.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded use of the term suburb dates to 1380 and is attributed to John Wyclif. Geoffrey Chaucer, a much better known author, used the term six years later when he wrote: “In the suburbes of a toun … Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde.”

My favorite citation from the OED, however, was penned by Sir Arthur Helps in his book, Social Pressures, published in 1875: “How this ugly lot of suburbs would join with that ugly lot, and that these would soon be one continuous street.”

In looking at the history of the term suburb, and particularly noticing how long it has been in use, it may be difficult to imagine that, at one time, suburbs were not only considerably more aesthetic, they were even considered desirable.

Some of the first, and most successful, suburban communities in this country were originally retirement areas. Couples who had worked throughout their life in the city retired to the suburbs, where, in theory, they could enjoy the best of both worlds: an equal proximity to both the country and the city.

In Chicago these communities are particularly evident on the near north side. During the years I lived in Chicago, friends and I would often travel the relatively short distance to the near north to play golf. The problem we discovered when we played many of these courses is that they were very, very short, which meant my friends and I were often waiting far longer than most of the others on the course to hit our shots because we were waiting for the group ahead of us to be clear. Needless to say, this really annoyed those groups playing behind us, and we soon abandoned playing these courses.

There was, however, an underlying, and legitimate reason for the shortness of the courses: they were designed for older, retired players who don’t hit the ball as far as 20-something interlopers from the city.

The growth of the middle class in American society in the years after World War II dramatically changed the character of the suburban landscape. The original idea of proximity to both country and city was still the popularizing concept, but added to the mix was the notion that the suburbs represented a degree of affluence. Living within the actual city, even though it was where you worked, somehow came to mean that you were not as successful or “well-off” as someone who worked in the city but lived in the suburbs. The combination of these two notions led thousands upon thousands of people to move out of the city into what had been the surrounding countryside.

The final ingredient to the recipe, which resulted in the disaster of today’s American suburbia, was the developer. Initially, the developers responded to the urban exodus, rushing to fulfill the demands for new homes, apartments, offices and stores. Then, having garnered tremendous profits from meeting these demands they were now free to speculate and the speculation led to ever-widening layers of suburbs surrounding the original city.

One of the defining aspects of a successful city is the quality of public transportation. Yet the nature of suburban growth is that the expansion occurs before the infrastructure. Personal automobiles (in today’s suburban environment these are usually SUVs – as in suburban utility vehicles) by necessity become the transportation of not only choice, but of necessity. And this factor has never been lost on developers.

It might surprise you that all shopping malls can be divided into types based solely on parking: strip malls, which offer parking in front of the stores directly off a main thoroughfare; the shopping village which offers more conventional parking around a cluster of shops (Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, developed in 1922, is an example); the pedestrian mall surrounded by parking lots (Shoppers World, built in 1951 in Framingham, Massachusetts is an example); and the enclosed mall (the Valley Fair Shopping Center in Appleton, Wis., billed itself as the first enclosed mall, opening on March 10, 1955).

Deyan Sudjic, an English architectural critic wrote a book called The 100 Mile City, in which he focuses on the cities of Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo – all of which stretch roughly more than 100 miles in diameter, including the suburbs. In the book he offers the following observation, which sums up as well as any other the crux of the problem with the modern suburb: “…commercial developers are in the business to respond to opportunities. They are not interested in, or equipped for, planning cities. Yet that is just what they are doing by default.”

The result is communities that offer neither the advantages of the city, nor the advantages of the country. And residents are left (usually at their own choosing) in an asphalt limbo.