Dead End America

National Geographic recently ran satellite images of suburban sprawl in America. From high above, the cameras captured a network of lights that fill the corridors and river valleys with tendrils reaching onto the plains and deserts where once there was only darkness. From the sky, the settlement pattern looks like microbes taking over a petri dish--let's hope it's not anthrax.

America is becoming The Suburban Nation. Once there were cities, villages, farms, and wildlands. Today, most Americans live in sprawl. It is not by accident but by design. The suburbs were invented in the early industrial age as a place for home and family. A successful man wanted to protect his loved ones from the filth of factories, muddy streets, saloons, and madding crowds, so he built his castle on the quiet tree-lined lane of a town at the end of the Interurban line. In the 20th century, some modern thinkers like Frank Lloyd Wright imagined a populist landscape where every American lived in equality in vast low-density grids covering the prairies. At the New York World's Fair of 1939, visitors were told that the "world of tomorrow" was a sprawling blanket of modern subdivisions linked by commodious freeways. After World War II, Americans began building and populating exactly that landscape--and on it goes.

The suburbs are still popular, largely because they are safe. Safety, in fact, is their greatest commodity. Gated developments protect against the outside world; covenanted communities offer the security of neighbors willing to conform, who will mow their lawns and won't paint their homes an unsettling shade of gamboge. SUVs and minivans protect families who travel that paved Möbius strip that leads to an infinity of soccer matches. Suburbs are monuments to defensive living: life without surprise, without risk, without variety.

The War against Terrorism will complete the process of shaping The Suburban Nation. The events of Sept. 11th have emphasized for many people the danger inherent in cities: despite Mayor Rudolph Guiliani cleaning up the streets of New York--some would say suburbanizing them--the nation's best big city mayor couldn't make the world safe for skyscrapers, or the people who work in them. USA Today estimates that 81 percent of the World Trade Center victims were men; median age 39. They were largely suburban dads who rode the Interurban every day to do their duty in the dangerous city. If the city isn't safe for dads, it isn't safe for anyone, it seems.

The values that have caused the suburbs to blossom have seized the national consciousness. People are staying home, turning inward, and renting from Blockbuster. Polls show we are willing to surrender our individual rights for the promise of protection. We will carry national ID cards and will support the detention and deportation of suspicious aliens and strangers. Senators call for a Homeland Security force to patrol our streets. Others call for us to spy on one another. We demand more border guards and tougher immigration laws.

America once welcomed the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free; now we are accelerating the process of becoming the world's premier gated community. Forget making the world safe for democracy, we must make America safe. Period.

But there is danger in allowing fear to become our driving force, in making America as sterile as a strip-mall Starbucks. The Suburban Nation ought to remember that "cul de sac" is just a fancy word for "dead end."

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