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File:Suburbia 2 6027.jpg


Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.
Malvina Reynolds

The place where the Dom Com usually lives.

People live in houses that, while not exactly palatial, are still a lot bigger than they ought to be. Most of the houses look alike, having been built according to the same two or three plans. Instead of a Main Street like most small towns, a suburb will have The Mall, be it a big, enclosed shopping center or a strip mall with a Walmart. You can walk or ride a bike to a few places, but not most of them, so plots involving the availability of a car (such as the Very Special Episode about drunk driving) are possible.

A deep well of satire and (often not very affectionate) parody, especially from disaffected youth. The fact that we have an entire trope about this, Stepford Suburbia, speaks volumes about the way many Americans view the suburban lifestyle.

Suburbia in TV has three distinct flavors.

  • California, which is essentially The City, except that people have yards. Most people are college educated, middle-class, and at least slightly liberal. If not California, then the Northeast is readily available.
  • The Midwest, which is more rural. Family Values often abound. Frequent forays into the Quirky Town and the Town with a Dark Secret. Poorer and less educated than their coastal brethren, and somewhat more likely to be conservative. Often, these portrayals stray far from real life and enjoy an undercurrent of hypocrisy (the respectable church-goers are all sleeping with each other), partly to add color, but mostly because the Midwest is just slightly less alien than Mars to most of the folks who write TV.
  • The gated community. Entrance to this neighborhood is restricted to residents, mail and delivery men, cops, and visitors, with a guard booth at the road in and out. Often shares the conservatism of Midwestern suburbs, with the residents of the community hoping to create a idyllic life for themselves, just like in those Fifties sitcoms, free from "those people" outside. There's also a big element of snobbery and class warfare -- these people bought their way into Sunnyside Estates, thank you very much.

Now for the boring history lesson. While American cities have always had suburbs, especially in the early 20th century with the rise of inexpensive streetcar, automobile and rail transit, the modern concept of suburbia didn't take off until after World War II, when the G.I. Bill[1], cheap gas, cheap land, the new Interstate Highway System, and the postwar baby boom created an enormous demand for housing that couldn't be met by the cities alone. As a result, cities began to expand outward rather than upward. Similar factors were in play in other countries, like Canada and Australia, both of which also now have very large suburban populations.

American suburbia was subject to de facto (and sometimes de jure) segregation in both the North and the South, with real estate agencies often barring their realtors from letting black families see homes in the nicest neighborhoods (a process known as redlining) and contracts frequently prohibiting white homeowners from selling their property to black families. While these shady tactics were outlawed in The Sixties, by this point the predominant whiteness of suburbia was well-entrenched. In The Seventies and beyond, this made it attractive for people upset with the more far-reaching forms of desegregation (especially busing), leading to a phenomenon known as "white flight" in which middle-class white families moved out to the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them and leaving the cities behind to decay. Eventually, even those who had elected to "stay and fight" for desegregation saw themselves forced to move to the suburbs out of economic necessity due to the resulting collapse of the inner cities. This booming suburban voting bloc was a key component in the "Reagan coalition" that rose to power in The Eighties.

Recent years have seen a quiet reversal of the suburban trend, with a plethora of young people, typically college-aged or in their twenties, migrating back into the inner cities, leading to increased gentrification in those areas. A few likely causes of this movement include frustration with the suburban lifestyle, economic opportunity, the lower cost of renting an apartment in the city versus owning a house in the suburbs, the perception that automobile-dependent suburbia is environmentally wasteful, and a desire to "transform" what are viewed as needy communities.

Note that, in much of Europe, the suburbs have very different connotations, and are often depicted as ghettoes and housing projects where the chronically poor and recent immigrants find themselves in -- not unlike how the inner city is depicted in American media. Compare, say, the British trope of the Council Estate, which is, superficially and functionally, similar to suburbia (they're both cheap housing built after the war on the outskirts of the city), but is associated with poverty and crime rather than safety and prosperity. American-style suburbia, with single-family homes occupied by middle-class families, does exist in Europe[2], but it's uncommon due to much tougher land use and zoning laws necessitated by Europe's relative lack of space.[3] These connotations are more in line with how suburbs have traditionally been viewed -- "suburbs" translates from Latin as "under-city", or the red-light district. That's the meaning William Shakespeare would have had in mind when, in Measure for Measure, he has Mistress Overdone keeping a bawdy house in the suburbs.

Notes

  1. Short version -- a law passed near the end of the war that gave veterans access to higher education, as well as loans to buy homes and to start businesses.
  2. Again, a British example -- the Dursleys in Harry Potter live in such an area.
  3. The population density of the US is 32 per square km, while the EU has 112 per square km; put another way, Europe fits 1.5 times as many people as America in under half the amount of land. Now you know why Europe has stricter land-use laws and less sprawl: there's less land to go around. This is because Europe has supported large cities for far longer than the US--the Native Americans of what is now the US had some occasional proto-cities, but Europeans showed up around the time the most recent native North American urbanization had petered out--arguably causing it to peter out, by introducing plagues--and in any case urban civilization in the future USA never got close to where it did in Mexico and the Andes.
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