comments_image Comments

How Did the Suburbs Become the Zip Code From Hell?

Hard times have found a new neighborhood.

Photo Credit: kasyanovart /


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.