But in the past decade, the distinction between city and suburb has become blurred. “Commuter towns” in places like northern New Jersey, the eastern shore of Seattle’s Lake Washington, and Orange County, Californiaonce considered cultural Siberiaare now filled with work-from-home hipsters who care about things like independent cinema and what Arianna Huffington has to say. Long-ignored suburban outposts are being rebuilt with cool arts facilities and retro-chic cafés. In short, the things we always thought we needed cities fordecent sesame noodles, fabulous eyewear, lesbiansare now available where once there were only Aunt Goldie and her mahjong group. At the same time, America’s cities are becoming perversely suburban. Downtowns are being sanitized by wealthy residents who are pricing out the stragglers and bringing in block after block of Equinoxes, Starbucks, and Jamba Juices (behold the plan to open a Crocs shop in New York’s SoHo).
“From a cultural standpoint, cities are becoming less interesting and the suburbs are increasingly where the action is,” says Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History. “Partly because of the freedom the Internet gives us, but also because cities have become homogenized, inhospitable, and expensive beyond belief, people now live by the ethos of ‘everywhere a city,’ even if they’re in an outer ring, an outer-outer ring, or beyond.”
Since 1950, more than 90 percent of growth in U.S. metropolitan areas has occurred in the ’burbs. That outward push accounts for the millions of tract homes on postage-stamp parcels of land that housed the baby boomers and their kids. But what those numbers don’t reveal is how America’s suburbs are maturing and, dare we say, becoming more inviting.
After decades of living in New York and L.A., Dade Hayes, an editor and author, recently did the unthinkable: He bought a house in Larchmont, New York, a mile from where he grew up. “When I was a kid, Larchmont was a sleepy town where the most interesting restaurant was probably Charlie Brown’s,” he says. “Now there are late-night martini bars, a singles scene, an indie movie house a town overand all without the glorious urine stench you get in Manhattan.”
Once upon a time, the best you could hope for in suburbia was a coffee shop that spelled espresso without an x. Now some of the best food in Boston, for instance, actually comes from Food Network star Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger restaurant in suburban Wellesley. Formerly vapid Costa Mesa, California, is now, according to a recent article in the New York Times, “a cultural beacon, with a gleaming concert hall, art galleries and theater stages that have become breeding grounds for Broadway.” In the river towns north of Manhattan, one can spend a day at the Dia:Beacon galleries, surrounded by works by Richard Serra and Donald Judd, before attending a forum on poststructuralism at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow. Which is not to downplay the sophisticated good times unfolding in new “anti-suburbs” like Hercules, California, a reinvented San Francisco bedroom community that recently banned Wal-Mart in an effort to preserve what media critic and author Douglas Rushkoff calls “the sanctity of local reality.” Then there’s Wilton Manors, outside Fort Lauderdale, a mostly gay suburb that is the second city in the United States to have a gay majority on the city council.