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How Did the Suburbs Become the Zip Code From Hell?

Hard times have found a new neighborhood – in the suburbs.

For most of the 20th Century, suburbia was the great imaginative engine driving the American Dream. A home in the ‘burbs was the place you could sit back in safety and security and watch the great capitalist parade roll by.

The urban world might be a realm of dirt, deviance, violence, and dense populations that could be vaporized by a Soviet nuclear missile, but the ‘burbs were a respite of order, regularity, health, and abundance. A Shangri-la of single-family dwellings where life’s twin demons of fear and uncertainty could gain no foothold.

Somehow, while everybody was grilling hotdogs, the demons slipped in. Then they kicked back and made themselves at home.

Birth of a Suburban Nation

In the last half of the 19th century, ancient patterns of living got a violent shake-up. The walkable town receded into memory. Cities exploded in population, connected by railroads, dotted with skyscrapers — and plagued by slums. The bourgeois elite fled the harsh conditions of the new urban centers where their families felt threatened, and they sought refuge behind hedges both physical and mental.

We became a truly suburban nation in the postwar period. During the 50s, sitcoms like Leave It To Beaver offered models of ideal suburban mores from the new hearth of the American home, the television (Levittown, the original planned suburban community launched in 1947, provided pre-fab homes with a TV already installed). Life was but a white-bread-dipped-in-mayonnaise dream of sterilized sanctuary.

By the 1990s, half of all Americans called suburbia their home. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Lawn was achieved. Or was it?

Certain counter-narratives challenged what lay behind the sleek façade and peered into the dark corners of split-level houses where dreams could become nightmares. Storytellers dedicated an entire genre to suburban woes: trapped women who drowned their anxiety in Valium cocktails; bored, depressed teenagers getting smashed in the strip mall parking lot; seething racism; spiraling addiction; lethargic lives that made us fat — these streaks of ugliness marred the carefully composed picture of tree-lined streets and neat ranch ramblers.

Filmmakers and novelists probed the pain produced by those saccharine sitcom scripts, telling of broken families (The Ice Storm); sexual repression (Revolutionary Road, Pleasantville); career discontent (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit); sexism and over-consumption (The Stepford Wives); moral hypocrisy (Peyton Place); depression (American Beauty), and some unfathomable monstrous horror that rises up to annihilate hypocritical homeowners and their spoiled children (Nightmare on Elm Street).

Many noticed that suburbia’s close connection to the American pursuit of status and material wealth had made it a locale for dreams unfulfilled.

Struggle in Paradise

Poverty always lurked in the suburban shadows, but until recently it was not spoken of in polite company. Now the struggle is impossible to ignore.

Over the last couple of decades, the ‘burbs have ceased to be the haven of upper-middle class Americans. Immigrants have poured in, chasing construction jobs and domestic work. Families priced out of gentrified cities like San Francisco have flocked to the suburbs for cheaper housing. Once-prosperous residents who never thought they would know bankruptcy are caught in a strangling web of debt obligations. Unable to find once-plentiful manufacturing jobs, more and more suburban residents are relegated to crappy service work that strain budgets and obliterates living standards.

According to a new report by the Brookings Institution, there are now 16.5 million souls in suburban America eking out an existence below the poverty line, compared to only 13.5 million in cities. Poverty is becoming more concentrated, creating a new blot on the landscape, the suburban slum. The number of poor people living in the suburbs has skyrocketed by 65 percent in the past 14 years—growing twice as fast as urban areas.

The familiarity of the suburbs has turned unheimlich, to use Freud’s term for the uncanny, that queasy feeling you get when you notice that things are not in their proper place. Something that was supposed to be foreign — material want — has taken up residence. You can see it creeping slowly into the tangle of untended yards. Popping up in for-sale and foreclosure signs. Spreading in the scum that floats on neglected swimming pools. Weighing upon the slumped shoulders of the down-and-out who trudge along roads where once only sleek automobiles glided.

Crime stats show that in cities, homicides are down, but in the suburbs, killings are on the rise. From domestic violence and robberies gone bad to freak-out massacres and school shootings, suburbanites are finding themselves living in the midst of an ongoing murder-spree. In Atlanta, the violent-crime rate in the suburbs rose 23 percent between 2000 and 2008.

The downward plunge into mayhem is happening rapidly in metropolitan areas across the country, from Colorado Springs to Charlotte, N.C. Suburb-dwellers hit by the Great Recession, saddled by debt, socked by the housing bubble and the mortgage crisis, crushed by joblessness and underemployment are falling into an abyss of want, unable to get out.

Poverty is the new next-door neighbor, inching closer every day.

The shocking surge in suburban poverty has finally started to grab the attention of the media. What demographers, cultural historians, and social service advocates have known for some time is now national news. Those dreams of a bigger house, better schools, more opportunities…Poof! For increasing numbers, they are gone.

Unlike poor people living in urban centers, suburbanites find few social services to help them get by. They are stranded in cul-de-sacs, without things like food relief, and in many cases, without access to public transit. Even if there’s a food pantry in your suburb, how are you going to get to it without a car? And even if there’s mass transit, how sustainable is your life when the only decent job is 90 minutes away?

Meanwhile, the elites of suburbia have responded by creating enclaves within enclaves in the form of gated communities, ensconcing themselves in sprawling, aesthetically-disturbed McMansions with gaping garages and horrific carbon footprints. The real estate industry has built entire theme park-style villages where the woes of suburbia are to be excluded.

Revolt of the Used-to-Haves?

It seems that while everybody was cruising along, convinced that prosperity lay beyond the next rounded corner, the cultural practices and political forces that helped shape suburbia after the Second World War changed dramatically. The modern suburb, birthed in the crucible of the Cold War and the can-do populist spirit of the New Deal, has lost its way in a new era of unhinged capitalism.

What we’re learning is that the most idealistic Western planning is no match for unregulated capitalism — a force which, like a pack of wild horses, tramples us if we do not control it. Since the 1980s, the fever for deregulation, privatization, shareholder value ideology, union-crushing, and globalization has been remaking American society into a place in which no one but the rich can keep those demons of fear and uncertainty at bay. And even the 1 percent will be needing a safe-room.

Because of these rapid changes, suburbs have become the key battleground in American politics today. Research shows that Democrats have the upper-hand in majority-minority suburbs, but in poor non-minority and distressed middle-class ‘burbs, voters tend to be evenly split between the two parties. Obviously, voters need to see a real difference between the programs the Democrats and Republicans are offering.

You might think that Democrats would seize the moment to provide something tangible to struggling suburbanites, just as the New Dealers under FDR brought electricity and sanitation improvements to distressed rural areas and thus sealed support for a new economic compact. Unfortunately, many of today’s Dems have their sights trained mostly on the rich areas, so-called “Super Zips” like the affluent suburbs of northern Virginia. But as FiveThirtyEight’s David Wasserman points out, that’s not going to win them elections in 2014. For that, Dems need to attract less affluent suburbanites with a few ideas that might actually benefit residents. This is not hard to do if you simply think of what’s good for the vast majority of Americans instead of only what’s desirable for the greedy rich and the financiers.

For example, expanding Social Security and Medicare would appeal to white suburban seniors. Jobs programs, higher minimum wages, and investment in pubic schools would help woo younger suburbanites who are faced with hard times ahead. Yet as Bob Moser has observed, many Dems, particularly in the South, where suburban poverty is off the charts, still run as Republican Lites, yammering about deficit reduction and race-to-the-bottom sweetheart deals to attract corporations who will do little for local populations. They fail to embrace the kinds of populist messages that might enliven these struggling constituencies.

If American politicians have little to offer hard-pressed suburbanites, will the residents come out from behind picket fences and rebel? Could we have the makings of a real political movement? A Revolt of the Used-to-Haves?

Hard to say. When Occupy was front and center, suburbanites in areas like Chicago were seen to pitch in, and protests in places like Walnut Creek, a suburb of San Francisco, showed that residents found some sympathy with the movement. On the other hand, politicians like Illinois Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. (R-Mundelein), who called the Occupy protesters “un-American” and stoked fear by insisting that demonstrators were “raping and pillaging and beating people up and murdering” demonstrated that there is plenty of jingoism and displaced anxiety in the ‘burbs to be exploited by unscrupulous pols. As long as the fear can be directed outside the hedgerows, suburban populations can be kept docile and resigned to the shittiness of their fate.

Suburban dreams have been a part of our collective identity as long as any of us have been alive. But those dreams must change with reality, and it’s increasingly clear that suburbia is going to become the zip code from hell unless those who live in them decide they want a different outcome.

16.5 million is not a small number. Suburbanites of America, unite!

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