The Triumph of Burbopolis

I grew up in a pretty nice subdivision on Long Island, but try as I might to kindle some spark of nostalgia for “the Gates of Woodbury,” the gravitational pull of the place is almost nil. It has been nearly 30 years since I left, and at least until a couple of months ago, I could think of no reason to go back: no people to see (everybody I knew had also left), no curiosity to satisfy. In my imagination Juneau Boulevard is the same as it ever was, except maybe for the cars and the people, which I assume have been regularly updated. Isn’t that the way it has always been in the burbs—change without history? More of the same?

A lot more of the same, it’s true: since I left Long Island in the 70′s, resolving henceforth to live somewhere more in the middle of things, more real, the suburbs have quietly and steadily expanded. And then the day came, a few years ago, when I read in the paper that for the first time in history a majority of Americans now lived in the suburbs. America had officially become “a suburban nation”—which sounded to me like one of those utterly weightless demographic truths, empirically verifiable, but without any real echo in experience. For wasn’t this really just a change in quantity, not kind? The relative size of middle and fringe may have shifted, but surely not their relative weight.

At least this is what I assumed. It’s only recently that I’ve felt any compulsion to go back to Woodbury to test my assumptions, and that was mostly because I needed a place to set this essay. What I found when I got there was a good bit more than that. What I found looks a lot like a whole new country—or at least a place for which “suburb” is no longer quite the right word.

From the time I was 5 until I got out of high school I lived in the Gates near the corner of Juneau and Fairbanks Boulevards. In all that time, I never really noticed just how goofily dissonant those names are, with their improbable conjunction of Yukon pluck and Old World prissiness. Yet these place names, and the conflicting dreams they embody, tell you just about all you need to know about the place and the time.

The development went in on the site of an old North Shore estate that had been subdivided into acre lots during the Suburban Revolution; the developer decided to preserve the wrought-iron entrance gates to give a bit of aristocratic tone to his shiny middle-class development. As for the whole Yukon theme, ground was broken in 1960, soon after Alaska had become a state, and the Gates fashioned itself a forward-looking, even pioneerish kind of place. At the time Woodbury was on the suburban frontier, still mostly farm fields and forest, and the Gates aimed to distinguish itself from the cookie-cutter subdivisions then spreading out across Long Island.

In the same way the suburbs began as a reaction against city life, each new incarnation of suburbia has defined itself in opposition to some earlier, superseded ideal: middle-class utopias keeping one step ahead of history. In the beginning the suburban frontier stood in places like Brooklyn Heights, first made accessible by steam ferry in 1814, but the city quickly followed, folding Brooklyn’s row houses into its expanding grid. To prevent that kind of thing from happening again, the next new place (epitomized by Llewellyn Park, built in New Jersey in 1853, and Riverside, built near Chicago in 1868) was carefully planned to keep the city permanently at bay. It would be an ungridded community of free-standing houses in a park, linked to the distant city by trolley or train. Then, beginning in the 1920′s, the 19th-century railroad suburb was superseded by more far-flung subdivisions organized around the automobile and, after the war, the mass-production house pioneered by the Levitts.

By 1960, when my parents went house hunting on Long Island, Levittown was passe, and the next new place—the un-Levittown—promised to be the Gates of Woodbury, where the lots were generally a sprawling acre. Instead of identical houses lined up like sparrows on a wire, the developer offered three up-to-date models (ranch, split-level, and colonial), laid out his roads in sweeping, pointless curves and sited the houses so far back on their wooded acres that each appeared lost in a reverie of being a mansion. (Sometimes I think this is what is really meant by a “dream house”: the recumbent ranches dreaming of California, the colonnaded white colonials dreaming of Tara.) But if the Alaska angle implied the pastless potential of the next great American place, what was with those prissy “boulevards” and “drives,” all those “ways” and “terraces” and, for the cul-de- sacs, “courts” Understand that in the suburbs a developer will go to heroic lengths not to call a street a street. Street says city, and city is precisely the last thing you want to say. Whereas boulevard said fancy, said sophisticated, and if this effeteness jangled alongside muscular Alaska, that evidently didn’t bother the developer or his buyers.

Finding your way back to your suburban childhood home is harder than you might think. I didn’t know anyone who still lived in the Gates—my folks moved out in 1972, and most of their neighbors had headed down to Florida the minute the kids left for college, there to recreate a grayer, warmer Gates in Boca Raton. (One thing the burbs have done to America is to recast its geography along purely demographic lines.) To find out who lived in my old house, I had to send it a letter, addressed to “current resident.” (In quotes, to make sure it didn’t get tossed.) “Current resident” turned out to be Stephen and Jena Hall, and they graciously invited me to visit. Since I didn’t know anybody to stay with, “going home” to Woodbury meant spending the night in a $79 room in the Executive Inn on Jericho Turnpike, the main commercial strip.

My first impression of Woodbury, after rolling off the expressway onto Jericho Turnpike, was disorientation. Every landmark on my mental map of the area had been stripped and replaced by a big-box retailer, such that it took me the better part of two days to locate my junior high school, its unmarked turn off Jericho having been swallowed up by superstores. I noticed that the brands were all high-end, the kind my mother had had to drive all the way to Manhattan for.

Actually the brands should have been my tip-off that this was not the same place I left, that it had a completely different relationship to Manhattan. But I didn’t put that together until I turned onto Woodbury Road, passed a bunch of newer developments (including the Woodbury Estates and the almost completely flat Rolling Hills) and made the left onto Froehlich Farm Boulevard. Whenever “farm” (or “forest,” or “fairground” or anything venerably rural) is honored in a suburban place name, you can bet the thing is history, and such was emphatically the case with the old Froehlich farm.

The pumpkin field to which Charlie DeSalvo and I used to drag our wagons each fall for the purpose of committing petty larceny had sprouted a half-dozen smoked-glass office buildings, blocky islands in a glittering sea of really nice cars. Gateways Executive Mall, the sign said (I half-expected to see “of Froehlich Farm”), and it listed a phalanx of law firms, insurance companies, medical practices, banks and high-tech firms. Each of those really nice cars represented at least one really good white-collar job, and there must have been a thousand of them right here, smack in the middle of the pumpkin field that backed up against Fairbanks Boulevard.

“The city”: we led centripetal lives in those days, our heads bent toward Manhattan as if it were the sun. Which in some sense it was, the city being the source not only of all money but also of entertainment and information and—what was especially important to us as teenagers—authenticity. The suburbs, we believed, were fake; after all, we had watched them rise like stage sets on the farm fields, seen the instantaneous lawns rolled out over the raw dirt like new linoleum. This creation of a new life ex nihilo was of course exactly what our parents liked about the place, but what was to them a blank canvas was to us an existential void. Nothing was original except, well, except us and these childhoods we were having—a thought disturbing enough to make us wonder if those were somehow fake, too, “sub” to something realer.

Like lots of other dads in the Gates, mine commuted to a job in the real world every day, leaving the house before I woke up and rarely getting home before the dinner dishes had been cleared. Only a few of the moms had jobs, but they’d dress up and drive in a couple of times a month, to shop, catch a matinee, meet the dads for a fancy dinner and a “first run” movie.

Even before kids were old enough to solo on the L.I.R.R., we looked to the city as the source of our styles and shows and news, an all-powerful broadcast antenna to whose frequency we always tried to stay tuned. Tuesday nights Cousin Brucie handed down the Top 40 from Midtown Manhattan, and by Wednesday morning the Sam Goody at the Walt Whitman Mall would have rearranged its shelves accordingly. Later on, the more time you spent in the city, the cooler you were, because you had personally bathed in coolness’s headwaters, at the Fillmore East, say, or the Thalia, or the Eighth Street Bookshop.

It doesn’t seem as though Long Island’s cultural and economic antennas point west in quite the same way anymore. Oh, sure, the Long Island Expressway still creeps every morning, but often now it’s creeping in both directions, and a lot of those cars are heading to places like the Gateways Executive Mall (Exit 45), rather than to Manhattan. The retail, which once helped light up the city in suburban eyes, is no longer any different: the Walt Whitman shopping area is now basically Lexington Avenue and 59th Street—Gap, Banana Republic, Nine West, Barnes & Noble, J. Crew and Tower Records, all anchored by a Bloomingdale’s. But whether this represents the colonization of the suburbs by the city or the opposite is a question.

Radio and network TV still originate in Manhattan, but the newer media have traded broadcasting’s radiating waves for centerless webs of wire. Who can say where in the world cable TV comes from? (A lot of it from Long Island, actually: Cablevision’s headquarters happen to be in Bethpage.) And the Internet? America Online, perhaps the first great suburban medium, originates somewhere in suburban Virginia, though like the rest of the Web it might as well be anywhere.

One way to tell the story of the American suburbs is as a story of new technologies recasting the relationship of city and countryside. Electric power, trains, automobiles and broadcast television propelled successive waves of decentralization, each along slightly different lines. Until now, however, the pattern those lines formed always resembled the spokes of a wheel, with the city firmly in the center. Radiating highways and radio waves used to reinforce the gravitational pull of cities. But cable and computer networks are forming different patterns now, ones that mirror and speed the emergence of the burbs as free-floating entities with their own overlapping gravitational fields.

Time has been kind to many of the suburbs, and Juneau Boulevard is much prettier than I remember it. The conehead evergreens and midget rhododendrons, the paper birches and forsythia—all that dinky nursery stock plunked into backfill by landscapers—have put down roots and grown up to reclaim half-forgotten woodland identities, picturesquely blurring the new developments’ blunter edges. By now many of the trees have grown tall enough to cast interesting shadows. The American suburb was conceived in the 19th century by visionary designers like Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux and Andrew Jackson Downing to offer Americans a kind of democratically subdivided park, and the nicer ones are actually beginning to look that way.

Modest by comparison to what’s built today, the 60′s ranches and split-levels in the Gates have mellowed into period pieces: this is the architecture of postwar dreams that, at least from the vantage of a new century, no longer seem grasping or pretentious so much as sweet, even poignant. For this they probably have the newer houses to thank: the fat, bombastic three-story mini-mansions that now dot the Gates, many of them rising from the foundations of tear-downs.

Happily, the ranch on Juneau Boulevard hasn’t been a tear-down—though I was astonished to find at the far end of the driveway a hulking two-story post-modern building, a design studio perched atop a three-car garage. Jena Hall is a successful home-furnishings designer, and she has employed as many as eight people at a time here. On the exact spot where Binker, my problematic English bulldog, snored her days away in a chain-link dog run, people now come to work.

Jena Hall’s home business helped me see that the suburbs have proved to be rather more adaptable to changing lives and times than people once thought. The whole idea behind the suburbs was to draw bright lines and make separations: between city and country, obviously, but also between work and home, public and private. But it turns out we overestimated the power of architectural determinism. The suburbs have proved flexible enough to accommodate working mothers (though not without difficulty: Jena Hall’s studio was usually crawling with toddlers, hers and her employees’) as well as a great many different kinds of families and lifestyles. Since I left the Gates, its white nuclear families have been joined by singles and gays, Asians and African-Americans, people operating home businesses and empty-nesters. The houses themselves—light, wood-frame—turned out to be as easy to remodel as they had been to build. The world that built the postwar suburbs has passed away, and yet those suburbs still stand, remodeled by the press of history. What they haven’t been is reimagined or renamed, at least not yet.

When I was growing up in the Gates, suburban legend had it that one of the big white colonials on Bering Court had served as the model for Ward and June Cleaver’s house on TV. They showed the facade at the beginning of every episode, and it certainly looked right. Whether this was true or not (for all I know, every suburb in America nursed the same legend), we all wanted to believe it. Sometimes we regarded Hollywood’s notice as flattery, since being on TV made the Gates seem more real and substantial (fiction will do that); other times the fame seemed like the grimmest of jokes, weekly proof of the empty pretensions of the place.

Cleaverism—the sitcom image of suburbia—loomed large in our suburban lives, though its meanings were always complex and unstable. The Cleavers, Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed and all the rest proposed a ideal of suburban life that everyone knew was unrealistic and silly; and yet even as we made fun of it, we allowed the stereotype to exert a kind of normative hold on us. Your own family might be hopelessly dysfunctional, but maybe the Grables next door were getting it right. TV was happy to promote the Cleaver ideal because TV (alone among the arts) loved the burbs, and was eager to flatter what was, naturally, its ideal audience. Here were people marooned at home for much of the day, affluent and consumerist by inclination (having already purchased a new lifestyle), and at least at the start, insecure enough about the conduct of their new lifestyles to welcome the guidance of advertisers.

But what’s remarkable is how Cleaverism continues to organize so much of our thinking about suburbia. Now, though, it’s the lie of Cleaverism—call it Cheeverism—that dominates the popular image, offering writers and moviemakers a cheap way to construct a gothic version of suburbia, to throw its dark side into sharp relief. Now behind every smiling lawn is a dysfunctional family: Donna Reed’s sleeping with the woman next door and Eddie Haskell’s got a gun.

Yet the facade remains the organizing principle; in defiance of everything we know, we can’t seem to see the suburbs without it. Without the ghosts of the Cleavers hovering over them, the families in “American Beauty,” say, or of any number of recent suburban-gothic productions, just don’t make a whole lot of sense.

Before I left the Gates I drove into Bering Court to see if I could find the Beav’s old place. If I had the right one, the house has had a complete face lift since the 60′s. The stately white faux-colonial now has diagonal siding painted an unfortunate shade of puce, lots of opaque glass bricks and, out front, a berm thickly planted with shrubs to hide the facade. Very 80′s, it seemed, but for the life of me I could not name the dream behind this house.

It’s hard to spend time driving around Long Island today without a gathering sense of cognitive dissonance. So many of our generalizations about the burbs no longer stick, which almost seems a shame, since generalization was one of the things that we liked best about them. Is it even right to call a place like Woodbury—no longer “sub” to any “urb”—a “suburb” any more? “Urban sprawl” might be a better term. Certainly “sprawl” hints at the centerlessness of it, “urban” at the fact there’s nothing in the city you can’t find here. And maybe, as some have suggested, that is what I’m looking at but can’t quite yet see: a new kind of city, one we still don’t have the words or name for. “Edge City” is one proposal, though that still implies a center. “Technoburb,” another, hints at the role technology has played in freeing these place from their urban orbits, but it’s awfully cold. How about something more floppy-effervescent, like “burbopolis”

Whatever it ultimately gets called, the horizontal city that is now Nassau County, Long Island, is fast acquiring a city’s jangly diversity, though, being horizontal, it takes a car to really see it. Freeport has its African-American neighborhoods and Great Neck a community of Persians, and even in my very white elementary school you see Indian and Asian faces now. Street culture, of all things, has come to certain suburban lanes: in Glen Cove, Central American immigrants collect on corners and in front yards, talking and playing music as if they were still in Guatemala City. (The village issued a flier gently instructing them in suburban custom.) The new city has city problems too: housing shortages, crime waves, pollution; dilapidated “first ring” suburbs are said to be in the throes of a full-fledged “urban crisis.”

Though even here the generalizations don’t hold. Before I left Long Island I took a long walk through Levittown, where the suburban history of Long Island got its start half a century ago. A first-ring suburb built fast and on the cheap, Levittown by all rights should be crumbling by now. Yet the place I visited appeared to be doing just fine, in defiance of every stereotype that has been thrown at it. Held up as an example of conformity and monotony, Levittown’s 17,000 identical capes have mutated into an exuberant architectural Babel: the sparrows on a wire have each grown their own distinctive plumage.

Yet this free-for-all of Home Depot fantasy is held together nicely by the steady setback line of the houses and the mature shade trees marching down the gridded streets. Even more surprising, though, was the sidewalk scene, which even in late winter was about as lively as a New Urbanist could wish for, the young mothers out with their strollers, the kids biking home from school, the gray-haired joggers doing the loop in slo-mo. By the time I got back in my car, I felt completely confused about where, exactly, it was I’d been.

The monolith that was supposed to be suburban America—middle class, homogenous, white—has become just one of a great many neighborhoods in a larger and more complicated mosaic. So why is this new suburbia so hard to see plain, without the filter of suburban cliche? Maybe it’s because we’ve lost our old vantage point.

When my parents moved to the Gates in 1960, one-third of America was suburb, one-third city, one-third rural. Even those of us who lived in the first third tended to look at it from the perspective of the second. The city still held what amounted to a monopoly on descriptions and, for obvious reasons, the city didn’t much like what it saw rising up around it.

Forty years later, the suburbs—or whatever they are—have grown up and taken over: more people now live in suburban American than rural and urban America combined. Suburbia is America, and not just demographically. Today our politics are ruled by the suburbs; suburbia’s agenda—that is, issues bearing on the well-being of families with children, around which the suburbs still revolve—is now America’s. (Even the erstwhile party of the city has moved to the burbs, with Bill Clinton doing the driving.) Suburbia’s cultural power is harder to see, but that may be because it’s everywhere, indistinguishable from the air we breathe.

On the drive back to the country, where I live now, or where at least I think I live, I thought about the various ways suburban qualities have seeped beyond the burbs themselves. I thought about the suburbanization of the city, manifest in freshly themed neighborhoods and malled retailing, and I thought about Silicon Valley, which in some ways represents the apotheosis of suburbia: the first time in history an important economic, technological and cultural revolution has its roots in a suburb.

I also thought about manners. Ever since Levittown was built America has become a progressively more informal place, one where social distinctions get played down, where even the rich and famous feel compelled at least to act like normal suburbanites, and where hierarchical distinctions like high and low-brow—which are fundamentally urban distinctions—come to seem quaint. Suburbia’s too horizontal a place for all that.

I thought about clothes too. I usually wear a tie and sport jacket when I’m reporting, but not on this trip. Suburbanites dress up only to go to the city, a place where the presentation of self is far more serious business. That’s probably because all you really have to present in the city is yourself in public, dressed this way or that. In the burbs you’ve got the house and the car and the lawn all working overtime to tell the world who you are, and this leaves you free to dress down. Nowadays everybody dresses down; on Fridays, even the starchiest urban offices go suburban.

I wondered too if what we used to think of as the fakeness of the suburbs hasn’t also left its mark on the broader culture. To grow up on a “boulevard” conjured in a field is to be at home with the facade and the themed environment, with the quick-change and the quotation marks, not to mention the willing suspension of disbelief. It may be that ironic detachment is a mental habit we children of the burbs have come by naturally.

Anyway, these were my desultory highway thoughts, entertained on the long drive home from suburbia. The funny thing is, the closer to home I got, the more omnipresent the place I’d been began to feel. Suburbia, I realized, is no longer somewhere you go, or leave. Wherever we live now, it’s where we live.