“Much of what’s driving the exodus of hypereducated, interesting people from cities is economic,” says Rushkoff, who recently abandoned his beloved Brooklyn “space” for upstate New York. His move was prompted by his becoming a parent. In an urban landscape where even squalid apartments go for $1,000 a square foot and private preschools cost as much as Harvard’s tuition did a generation ago, it’s hard to live a grown-up life with style. “The converted warehouses and districts you’d want to live in have been taken over by stockbrokers and other drones nobody wants to spend five minutes with,” Rushkoff says. “You have to choose: Do I want to live in a cool place and work my ass off or do I want to live a great life somewhere else?”
The model of the city as patchwork, which so many urban dwellers see as a point of pride, is quickly becoming a relic of the past. “When you have Crate & Barrel and Whole Foods on every other corner, you don’t have the same sense of place, the sense that this block is distinct from that block, the way you did even 20 years ago,” Kotkin says. “The real diversity now is in suburban strip malls, where those who aren’t super-wealthy have been displaced and where you now find an East Indian barber next to a Persian grocer next to a young guy from a good East Coast college who’s selling earth-friendly furniture. And all that is next to the coolest Hindu temple you’ve ever seen.”
To be clear, this is not a blanket endorsement of suburbia. Throw a dart at an American subdivision and you’re likely to find spiritually desperate mall devotees or at least a pack of sullen teens driving around in Daddy’s Hummer. But for every Sam’s Club shopper or Curves gym regular, there’s also someone out there redefining what it means to live a suburban life. Across America, towns and sometimes just tracts within towns are being rebuilt and reclaimed in all sorts of novel ways, and those developments hint at what future suburbs might look like.
The tech-minded populace of Bellevue, Washington, near Seattle, turned that dull stretch into an eco-hipster Eden with 2,700 acres of new parkland. On the fringes of Boulder, Colorado, the new Main Street North district converted an abandoned drive-in theater into a funky hood full of restaurants, shops, and affordable houses you’d actually want to live in. Then there are the communities within suburban communities that draw Dwell-reading design snobs (that magazine, by the way, is about to publish its first-ever suburbia issue), like the meticulously rehabbed fifties tract homes east of Los Angeles and San Francisco designed by Joseph Eichler, George and Robert Alexander, and other fussed-over architects. “Once your house has some architectural appeal and your neighbors care about aesthetics, it raises the experience above suburbia,” says Paul Costa, who lives in an Eichler home in Sunnyvale, Calfornia, and rides his Segway to work at nearby Apple, where he designs iMacs. “Suburbia,” he says, “is a state of mind. It’s as cool as you want it to be.”