Is it Time to Move to the Suburbs?

Homogeneous cities are making the cul de sac the new downtown. PLUS: Our guide to the hippest ’burbs to live in.

It can start with a stolen car stereo or an upstairs neighbor who sounds like Lord of the Dance. Often it’s the birth of a child that does it. Sometimes it’s just the smells—other people’s cooking, other people’s garbage, other people.

For Mike Marusin, it was “Jump Around“ that drove him from the city to the suburbs once and for all.

“I was in a one-bedroom on the North Side of Chicago and these young guys moved in next door and started blasting House of Pain at all hours. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little space from all this?’“

And so, five years ago Marusin, then in his late twenties, did what a surprising number of otherwise intelligent, mall-averse Americans are starting to do. He relocated to the land of the cul de sac, the garden gnome, and the 4,500-square-foot starter house. “I didn’t fit the profile of the lawn-obsessed, Escalade-driving suburbanite,“ says Marusin, a website developer who drives a Prius and now lives in cushy Naperville, Illinois, with his wife, Liz, an interior designer. “But staying in the city—it was beginning to kill us.“

To say all the cool people are moving to the ’burbs would be an overstatement. For hard-core city types, the idea of settling in suburbia is a death sentence. Life without 24-hour Thai delivery, backstage passes to the Buckethead show, and the occasional Stan Brakhage retrospective is hardly a life at all.

It can start with a stolen car stereo or an upstairs neighbor who sounds like Lord of the Dance. Often it’s the birth of a child that does it. Sometimes it’s just the smells—other people’s cooking, other people’s garbage, other people.

For Mike Marusin, it was “Jump Around“ that drove him from the city to the suburbs once and for all.

“I was in a one-bedroom on the North Side of Chicago and these young guys moved in next door and started blasting House of Pain at all hours. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little space from all this?’“

And so, five years ago Marusin, then in his late twenties, did what a surprising number of otherwise intelligent, mall-averse Americans are starting to do. He relocated to the land of the cul de sac, the garden gnome, and the 4,500-square-foot starter house. “I didn’t fit the profile of the lawn-obsessed, Escalade-driving suburbanite,“ says Marusin, a website developer who drives a Prius and now lives in cushy Naperville, Illinois, with his wife, Liz, an interior designer. “But staying in the city—it was beginning to kill us.“

To say all the cool people are moving to the ’burbs would be an overstatement. For hard-core city types, the idea of settling in suburbia is a death sentence. Life without 24-hour Thai delivery, backstage passes to the Buckethead show, and the occasional Stan Brakhage retrospective is hardly a life at all.

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, California—once considered cultural Siberia—are 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 for—decent sesame noodles, fabulous eyewear, lesbians—are 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 over—and 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.

“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.“

In fact, in the not-so-distant future, suburbs might be all about the mind-set. One concept spreading through urban-renewal circles is to develop communities from scratch for like-minded citizens in conventional subdivisions in suburban areas. Robert McIntyre, an urban planner from Austin, Texas, devised this concept of “new villages,“ where jobs, food, water, and energy would all come from within the community. “Most of these towns will be small, located near cities, and resemble the dispersed agricultural villages that were common in the 1700s,“ McIntyre says. In other words, suburbs might just go back to where we all started: the city. That’s good news for urbanistas. If nothing else, towns like those might create a little more room for those of us who aren’t budging from our rent-controlled fifth-floor walk-ups.

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