Eat the suburbs

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The cicadas rev up as the summer sun bakes the carefully tended lawns of suburban Dublin, Ohio. Houses sit exposed like cattle in the heat, the trees too small to offer a shaded window or cool spot on the driveway so everything is shut tight. The only ones outside for any length of time are the folks cutting grass, fixing awnings, installing cable. The one man walking in the sun is the father of an Indian immigrant who works in Columbus and whose wife, jostled by the move to this sterile field, watches her kids ride bikes down an empty street.

There are whole days when there is not a single person on the move, not a single person walking, not a single hello. A body could die in a park bench in some tucked away corner and not be noticed for days.

Welcome to the new suburbia, same as the old. But now things are getting dangerous.

I once spent an ill-planned 18 hours in Dubai. This city by the sea depended on oil wealth and whatever dark science it could muster to feed, shelter, and slake the thirsts of the 2.7 million souls who lived in that desert redoubt. That city teeters on a knife-edge of money and time. One error in a desalinization plant computer or one bad week on the pipelines and the city will sink into the sand, gone forever.

But it survives because it has a mission. It survives because there is a passion there for survival. But it is still in danger.

The idealized small town is gone, replaced by the dual human urges to separate ourselves from the Other and, at the same time, expect all the comforts of a pasha. In the US, developers drain murky land and build massive houses around drainage bogs. They roll out sidewalks and roads, turning and twisting the roads along the contours of some imagined master plan and name each cul-de-sac something silly — Green Fenn, Waterstone, Glendale — as if these were tree-lined avenues leading to some rich Duke’s manor.

Then they sit back and let the houses sell themselves. After all, isn’t the suburban life — the lawn, the driveway, the tire swing attached to a stunted oak — the life we all want?

What none of these pre-fab community builders realize is that they, like Dubai, are on a knife’s edge. The disconnect found in suburbs is damaging and dangerous. There is a ferocity to children who grow there, a wastrel attitude to the owners of its houses, and a class schism that threatens fabric of the cities at the core of these places.

The first signs of the coming suburban blight appeared just before the 2008 financial crisis. That was then you could see mansions springing up in unlikely places — outside Wheeling, West Virginia, in a field in deepest Bucks County, Pennsylvania. These places were supposed to be built for quick turnaround and, in lucky spots, they were. They were built and populated in moments, sold to people who had always lived in old houses with breaking wallboard and runny gutters. They were fresh and new and clean and they seemed like a bargain. But they didn’t see everything they were buying. Of course, the suburbs have changed drastically since the days of Levittown and key parties. The middle class homes springing up in the periphery of our cities are nothing like the compact communities that defined 1950s America. I believe, like so many long-ago Penny Lanes and Pleasant Valley Sundays did in the 1960s, they’re about to spawn a cultural movement unmatched in recent history.

Celebration, Brooklyn

In 1700s France, two things happened that can help us define our future. First, the King and Queen escaped more and more to their massive palace at Versailles, leaving the business class, the paupers, and the traders to their business in the dirty, shit-smeared city. Marie Antoinette, that paragon of all that was wrong with pre-Revolutionary politics, recreated a small French town on the grounds of Versailles where she and her friends pretended at being milkmaids, spraying warm milk into ceramic buckets painted like wood.

In the heart of Paris, on the Île de la Cité, the watchmakers, opticians, and engineers of Paris all lived around the Place Dauphine, a small square upon which all of their workshops opened. It was in this small space that creators like Abraham Breguet, Jean-Antoine Lepine, and others went to live and work. They passed know-how over chats in the park, sent their errand boys across the Place for a piece of ground glass or advice on a calendar design, and puzzled out the future of timekeeping and, ultimately, the discovery of new ways of thinking over cafe and croissants in this small square not far from Notre Dame.

While royalty yearned to recreate an impossible past, the makers of cramped Place Dauphine worked to build a possible future. The old royalty vs. science dichotomy is not new but it is definitely more apt in this case then ever.

As a follower of innovation, it is clear that it cannot happen in the vacuum of modern suburbia. I’ve been to countless cities around the world and I’ve seen the best, most vibrant communities spring up in places that were written-off as unattractive, undesirable, and too cramped. Detroit isn’t going to build innovative products in Grosse Pointe but in the bombed out downtown district. Charleston, Charlotte, and Atlanta are all repurposing the close city core to create a new Place Dauphine. And the suburbs, comfortable and distant, risk losing their best and brightest to crunchy Clintonville in Columbus, Cherokee Street in St. Louis, and RiNo in Denver.

What is needed to create innovation — innovation of the type experienced in 1700s Paris and 1950s America and 1960s Asia — is a dense, interconnected web of thinkers dedicated to close co-work.

What is needed, then, is a return to small town America now identified by walkable districts in every major innovation hub. Pittsburgh has its walkable campus and Shadyside/Squirrel Hill Districts and the rambling Victorians, now split into three apartments, house many of the folks building self-driving cars and robotic Mars rovers. SF has its walkable districts and Palo Alto is the very definition of small town, a walking district surrounded by bikable neighborhoods that are, by and large, wildly out of the standard price range.

Finally we have the many chunks of Brooklyn, each a town in itself. It is in these centralized live-work-eat-drink districts, districts that are anathema to the dreams of suburban developers, where innovation thrives. And it is because, unlike the suburban sprawl, there is not corporatization or fear, but intense local interconnection.

The Ideal

Small countries with few people are best.
Give them all of the things they want,
and they will see that they do not need them.
Teach them that death is a serious thing,
and to be content to never leave their homes.
Even though they have plenty
of horses, wagons and boats,
they won’t feel that they need to use them.
Even if they have weapons and shields,
they will keep them out of sight.
Let people enjoy the simple technologies,
let them enjoy their food,
let them make their own clothes,
let them be content with their own homes,
and delight in the customs that they cherish.
Although the next country is close enough
that they can hear their roosters crowing and dogs barking,
they are content never to visit each other
all of the days of their life. — Tao Te Ching

My late Grandmother Sadie’s orbit consisted of seven blocks. From her home on North 8th Street in Martins Ferry she could visit her friends across the street or walk down to Zane Highway where she’d buy groceries at a small Convenient Food Mart. She walked with us to the pool, to the library, and to the five-and-dime. She lived her whole live in that seven block orbit. Her husband worked in the mills by the river and she worked in a glove factory four blocks away.

Her experience was a model for how humans can thrive. Her generation oversaw the greatest industrial growth of any civilization anywhere. It was a primarily small-town experience, one born out of geographic necessity and economic gain. Our suburban experience — drive 30 minutes to work, drive to Target, drive to the gym, shut the door tight against the coming night — is the exact opposite of that. Contrary to zombie films, suburbs are the first to be hit by downturns, the first to be smashed under tornadoes and other acts of god, and the primary generators of anger and fear.

Reading the Tao Te Ching now we are given a vision for maximum, well, Tao-ness. This vision includes a small town disconnected from the one across the valley, a community so close and careful that they fear death and dissipation above all. This sort of experience was once absolutely necessary in a world where threats were real and came on horseback. Now the same Taoist passage tells us something else — that we thrive when we are close and our lives are pleasant and good. This is not rocket science but, when you compare a suburban wasteland to a European plaza, you see the value in trying to focus on rebuilding the Place Dauphine rather than Versailles.

The human needs fresh air, to be sure. We need a plot of land. I was outside of Warsaw this summer, in an open field next to two well-stocked fishing ponds, and someone in a farmhouse not far was playing violin, the high lonesome notes climbing up past the trees and into the open sky. This is the country of the Tao Te Ching.

But those same notes more often rise over our cities, those same songs. And there they are heard more clearly and more effusively, the audience more than one man and a pond of fish.

Bombing the suburbs is not the answer, but avoiding them surely is. The future is not in sun-scrubbed food deserts where the average home price is $500,000. The future is being built in the small spaces in the hearts of dying cities, places where innovation can take hold and whispers of the future are heard, unhindered by the low thrum of lawnmowers cutting grass bare feet will never feel.