Naperville: Stressed Out in Suburbia

A generation after the postwar boom, life in the suburbs has changed, even if our picture of it hasn’t

I RECENTLY SPENT some time in Naperville, Illinois, because I wanted to see exactly how our familiar ideas about the suburbs have gotten out of date. Naperville is thirty miles west of the Chicago Loop. It had 7,000 residents in 1950, 13,000 in 1960, 22,600 in 1970, and 42,600 in 1980, and just in this decade it has nearly doubled in population again, to 83,000 this year. Driving there from Chicago, you pass through the West Side ghetto, the site of riots in the late sixties, and then through a belt of older suburbs at the city limits. Just when the suburbs seem to be dying out, you arrive in Oak Brook, with its collection of new shopping malls and office towers. The seventeen-mile stretch from Oak Brook west through Naperville to the old railroad city of Aurora has the look of inexplicable development common to booming areas that were recently rural. Subdivisions back up onto cornfields. Mirrored-glass office parks back up onto convenience-store parking lots. Most of the trees are saplings.

The picture we have of middle-class life in the United States is essentially still set in the suburbs of the 1950s. The sheer volume of information available about the American middle class is greater for the 1950s than for any other period of our history, because there was then a tremendous outpouring of journalism, sociology, and fiction on the subject. The middle class seemed fascinating at the time: it was acquiring a new home, the suburbs, and a new economic base, the large bureaucratic business organization, and these were quickly becoming the dominant social forms in the country. Since the early sixties, suburbia has been taken more for granted.

The people who grew up in fifties suburbia now dominate the country culturally, and from them we are getting a second wave of interest in middle-class family life, which comes from their own involvement in it. Here, too, the basic idea is the fifties; people’s concept of suburbia, like their concepts of summer and marriage, comes more from what they knew growing up than from what they’ve experienced themselves as adults. On television especially, constant references are made these days to the suburbs of the Baby Boom generation’s youth as the proper locus of the American middle class. All subsequent developments seem slightly perfidious.

While we’ve been glorifying the suburbs of the fifties, the suburbs of the eighties have been evolving into places quite different. The most obvious change has been a political-economic one: in the fifties the suburbs were exclusively residential, but businesses have been moving to them over the past fifteen years, and this has broken the iron association of suburbs with commuting downtown. The fastest-growing kind of town in the country is one on the outer edge of a metropolitan area which has acquired an employment base. Christopher Leinberger and Charles Lockwood, writing in The Atlantic three years ago, called these communities “urban villages,”and there are also several other names for them, including “edge cities” and “technoburbs.” The communities have cropped up all over the countryin Plano, Texas, and Tysons Corner, Virginia; the towns in the valleys surrounding the Los Angeles Basin and along the outer reaches of San Francisco Bay; New York satellites like Stamford, White Plains, and Princeton. Because we’re fixated on the fifties, we don’t have a good sense of what life is like in these places, which, if they’re not yet typical of suburbia, certainly represent the direction in which suburbia is heading.

Our notion now of suburbia in the fifties is that it was essentially benign—sometimes gawky, often dull, but on the whole healthy and happy. But in the fifties themselves virtuallv everything written about the suburbs was negative, even alarmed. The indictment can be summed up in one word: conformity. Working for huge corporations, living in tract homes, surrounded by spookily similar neighbors, the new middle-class Americans had lost their feelings of pride, meaning, and identity. They wanted only to blend unobtrusively into a group.

The run of suburban literature began, roughly, with the publication of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (which is not explicitly about the suburbs, but set the tone) in 1950. The deservedly best-remembered of the many books about the suburbs by sociologists and journalists is William H. Whyte’s The (Organization Man (1956). There was also a Hood of suburban fiction. of which the best-known works are probably the stories and novels of John Cheever and, because of its catch-phrase title. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson. The suburbs took such a beating in most of these books that by 1967 the sociologist Herbert Gans was able to cast The Levittowners as an attack on the attackers of the new middle class. Gans argued convincingly that most of the critics of suburbia didn’t know what they were talking about, and were animated by a snobbish distaste for the lower middle class. But the idea that suburban society was oriented toward the community at the expense of the individual is so widespread in the literature that there must have been something to it. Today nobody worries about conformity as a national issue, and nobody I met in Naperville mentioned it as a problem. The suburban psychological force that occasionally overwhelms people is not the need to fit in but the need to be a success.

THE HISTORY OF Naperville as an urban village begins in 1964, when AT&T decided to build a major facility there for its research division, Bel) Labs, along the new Interstate 88. Before that, as the next-tolast stop on the Burlington & Northern line from Chicago, Naperville attracted some hardy long-distance commuters, but it was mainly an independent small town, with frame houses and streets laid out in a grid. Bell Labs opened in 1966 and is still by far the largest employer in Naperville—7,000 people work there, developing electronic switching systems, and another 3,000 work at a softwaredevelopment center in the neighboring town of Lisle. In 1969 Amoco moved its main research-and-development facility from the industrial town of Whiting, Indiana, to a site in Naperville along the interstate, near Bell Labs. Today more than 2,000 peoplework there. All through the seventies and eighties businesses have built lowslung, campus-style office complexes up and down 1-88, which Governor James R. Thompson in 1986 officially subtitled “The Illinois Research and Development Corridor.” There are now four big chain hotels on the fivemile stretch that runs through Lisle and Naperville. In Aurora, Nissan, Hyundai, and Toyota have all established distribution centers, and four insurance companies have set up regional headquarters.

In the fifties the force driving the construction of residential neighborhoods in the suburbs was that prosperity had given young married couples the means to act on their desire to raise children away from the cities. In the eighties in Naperville there is still some of this, but the real driving force is that so many jobs are there. Dozens of new residential subdivisions fan out in the area south of the office complexes and the old town center. In this part of town, whose land Naperville aggressively annexed, the school district has built three new elementary schools since 1984 and added to seven others. A new junior high school opened this fall, another one is under construction, and last spring the town’s voters passed a bond issue to build another elementary school and additions to two high schools.

In The Organization Man, William Whyte was struck by how removed the place he studied—Park Forest, Illinois, the fifties equivalent of Naperville, brand-new and also thirty miles from the Loop—was from Chicago and from urban forms of social organization. Naperville is even more removed, mainly because downtown commuters are a small minority of the new residents. Nearly everybody in Park Forest worked in Chicago. Only five thousand people take the train from the Naperville station into Chicago every day; most people work in Naperville or in a nearby suburban town. The people I talked to in Naperville knew that they were supposed to go into Chicago for the museums, theater, music, and restaurants, so they were a little defensive about admitting to staying in Naperville in their free time, but most of them do. Though Naperville has many white ethnics (and a few blacks and Asians), it has no ethnic neighborhoods. There are ethnic restaurants, but many of them are the kind that aren’t run by members of that ethnic group. Naperville is politically conservative but has no Democratic or Republican organizations active in local politics. Nobody who can afford a house lives in an apartment. There are only a few neighborhood taverns. Discussions of Chicago focus on how much crime is there, rather than on the great events of municipal life.

Places like Naperville are often dismissed as examples of heedless sprawl, ugly and unplanned. The charge may be true of some places, but it is not of Naperville, which is extremely well run. A master plan precisely sets forth how the town is to grow, to the point when all its empty space is filled up. The downtown shops have been kept alive. There is an excellent new library, a brick walkway (built by volunteers) along the DuPage River in the center of town, and plenty of green space. City property taxes have been lowered in each of the past three years. Naperville represents not chaos but a conscious rejection of the pro-urban, anti-automobile conventions that prevail among planners.

In distancing itself from Chicago, Naperville has continued a trend that was already well under way in Whyte’s Park Forest. Otherwise, most of the ways in which Naperville is different from Whyte’s Park Forest and places like it were not predicted by the suburbia experts of the time.

Naperville is much more materially prosperous, and at the same time more anxious about its standard of living, than Park Forest was. The comparison isn’t exact, because Park Forest was a middle-middle-class community dominated by people in their late twenties and early thirties; Naperville is more affluent and has a somewhat fuller age range. Nonetheless, since Naperville is the fastest-growing town in the area, it can fairly be said to represent the slice of American life that is expanding most rapidly right now, as Park Forest could in the fifties. The typical house in Park Forest cost $13,000 and had one story (the most expensive house there by far, where the developer lived, cost $50,000). The average house in Naperville costs $160,000, and the figure is higher in the new subdivisions. Plenty of new houses in town cost more than $500,000. Most of the new houses in Naperville have two stories; in fact, the small section of fifties and sixties suburbia in Naperville is noticeably more modest than the new housing.

In fifties suburbs the architecture was usually quite simple. In Naperville the new houses are flamboyantly traditional, with steeply pitched roofs, redbrick or stained-cedar exteriors (aluminum siding is banned in many of the subdivisions), leaded-glass windows, massive front doors, cathedral ceilings, fireplaces, gables, even turrets. The names of subdivisions and of house models often evoke European nobility: The Chateaux of La Provence, La Royale, The Golf Villas of White Eagle Club, The Country Manor, Charlemont IV. Whyte had chapters called “Classlessness in Suburbia” and “Inconspicuous Consumption,”and described the material ethos of Park Forest as quasi-socialist. Although in the fifties the average American, known to intellectuals as “mass man,” was materially much better outfitted than he had been, the suburbs had become home to a wider range of people than they had been before the Second World War, and so seemed more democratic. Naperville is much made fun of in the neighboring communities as the home of snobs and yuppies.

Obviously one reason for the difference is that Park Forest in the early fifties was only a very few years into the postwar boom, which left the middle class vastly better off than it had been before. Another is that the consumer culture was young and undeveloped in the fifties. Middle-class people today want to own things that their parents wouldn’t have dreamed of.

THE AFFLUENCE OF Naperville is also a by-product of what is probably the single most important new development in middle-class life since the fifties (and one almost wholly unanticipated in the fifties), which is that women work. Park Forest was an exclusively female town on weekdays; when Whyte wrote about the difficulty of being a “superwoman,” he meant combining housework with civic and social life. In Naperville I heard various statistics, but it seems safe to say that most mothers of young children work, and the younger the couple, the likelier it is that the wife works. When Business Week did a big story on the “mommy track” last spring, it used a picture of a woman from Naperville. What people in Naperville seem to focus on when they think about working mothers is not that feminism has triumphed in the Midwest but that two-career couples have more money and less time than one-career couples.

In the classic suburban literature almost no reference is made to punishingly long working hours. The Cheever story whose title is meant to evoke the journey home at the end of the working day is called “The Five FortyEight,” and its hero is taking that late a train only because he stopped in at a bar for a couple of Gibsons on the way from his office to Grand Central Station. In Naperville the word “stress" came up constantly in conversations. People felt that they had to work harder than people a generation ago in order to have a good middle-class life. In much of the rest of the country the idea holds sway that the middle class is downwardly mobile and its members will never live as well as their parents did. Usually this complaint involves an inexact comparison—the complainer is at an earlier stage in his career, works in a less remunerative field, or lives in a pricier place than the parents who he thinks lived better than he does. In Naperville, where most people are in business, it’s more a case of people’s material expectations being higher than their parents’ than of their economic station being lower. A ranchstyle tract house, a Chevrolet, and meat loaf for dinner will not do any more as the symbols of a realized dream. Also, a changed perception of the future of the country has helped create the sense of pressure in Naperville. Suburbanites of the fifties were confident of a constantly rising standard of living, level of education, and gross national product in a way that most Americans haven’t been since about the time of the 1973 OPEC embargo. The feeling is that anyone who becomes prosperous has beaten the odds.

It is jarring to think of placid-looking Naperville as excessively fast-paced, but people there talk as if the slack had been taken out of life. They complain that between working long hours, traveling on business, and trying to stay in shape they have no free time. The under-the-gun feeling applies to domestic life as well as to work. It’s striking, in reading the old suburban literature today, to see how little people worried about their children. Through many scenes of drunkenness, adultery, and domestic discord, the kids seem usually to be playing, oblivious, in the front yard. Today there is a national hyperawareness of the lifelong consequences of childhood unhappiness (hardly an issue of People magazine fails to make this point); the feeling that American children can coast to a prosperous adulthood has been lost; and the entry of mothers into the work force has made child care a constant worry for parents. The idea that childhood can operate essentially on autopilot has disappeared.

Teenagers in Naperville complain that they have nothing to do, but everyone else is overscheduled, including children. Day care adds a layer of complication to life: Naperville’s booming day-care centers accept not only pre-school children but also children who need supervision after school, until their parents get home. The school system’s buses drop some children off at day-care centers in the afternoon. Every neighborhood has stories about latchkey kids, too.

A constant round of activities has been organized for children. The Naperville park district, which carries out the traditional functions of a municipal recreation department, runs an elaborate sports program, which parents appreciate while slightly rueing the time they spend ferrying their kids to soccer games and swim meets. “Sometimes we wonder why our kids can’t just get a baseball game together,”one mother told me. In the elementary schools, as late as the early seventies all students went home for lunch. Now the schools have lunchrooms—and many special new programs, added in part because of lobbying by parents who expect a high level of service from the schools. In the mid-eighties, at the parents’ request, the elementary schools added an hour a day of special “enrichment” programs for students with IQs over 125. The high schools added advanced-placement courses. School administrators and parents complain about the competitive atmosphere for students, in wich an idyllic midwestern upbringing is a fading memory and it’s painful to be average.

Adults in Naperville are competitive too. The people I talked to there were intensely aware of income distinctions within the community, a subject that rarely came up in books about the suburbs of a generation ago. The most direct blast of it that I got was in a meeting with a group of women who had just finished a parenting class taught by the elementary school system’s social worker. The parenting class is part of a small culture of therapy that has sprung up in Naperville, in response partly to problems like divorce and drugs and partly to people’s increased awareness of psychological well-being as an important issue in life. What seemed to be the real reason the women I met took the class was that they wanted affirmation of their decision not to work, which they felt had consigned them to a slightly lower status level than women with jobs. Their message was that they might have less money and prestige, but they were better parents.

Working mothers, they told me, buy off their children with copious gifts of new toys in place of maternal contact. They leave their children behind even on vacations, which are spent in expensive glamour spots. They sign their children up for a ceaseless round of overachieving activities, and then expect the full-time mothers to do all the carpooling. The neighborhood children are always hanging around the houses where the mothers are at home. Working mothers’ children are kept up ridiculously late at night because that’s the only time they see their parents. The mothers don’t do volunteer work in the community. The litany ended with the inevitable coup de grace: “You wonder why they had kids.”

The new houses in the subdivisions in Naperville clearly show an evolutionary adaptation of domestic architecture to customers who are busier than people used to be and more concerned with the fine gradations of status. The living and dining rooms are shrunken, vestigial spaces flanking the front hall. People entertain at home less and less because they don’t have the time to, and so they don’t need these rooms. In Park Forest in the fifties (and in most of the suburban fiction of the time), the socializing was so constant—cocktail parties, dinner parties, teas, coffees, bridge-club gatherings— that Whyte found it a cause for concern, because it enforced conformity. In Naperville everybody says that the at-home party is dying. Instead, people go out to restaurants, which are almost completely absent from the mythology of fifties suburbia.

Kitchens are usually built open to a large family room in back, which is meant to contain the main household television set and which has taken up the space left by the shrinking of the living and dining rooms. This indicates that what cooking goes on must not be elaborate or messy enough to bother the family members sitting a few feet away. Other rooms in the houses show that people want to be reminded that they are winners. The bizarrely large and well-appointed master bathrooms that Philip Langdon wrote about in these pages last month are common in Naperville. Often there is a small “study” off to the side downstairs, designed to suggest brandy and cigars and meant to be available for use as a home office, A small but dramatic balcony overlooks the front hall or the family room in many houses.

Because of the placement of the family room, which often opens to an outdoor deck, the new houses in Naperville are oriented toward the back yard, which may be fenced. In the fifties most writers described the unfenced front yard as the locale for much of the children’s outdoor life. This contributed to the intense feeling of community in suburban neighborhoods, which led to the joke, quoted by Whyte, that Park Forest was “a sorority house with kids.”In Naperville it seems much more possible not to know your neighbors. All the subdivisions have homeowners’ associations. These constitute organized politics, such as it is, in the new parts of Naperville. The mayor, Margaret Price (who herself started out as a homeowners’association president), meets with them regularly. But some homeowners’ associations take off as community organizations and others don’t.

The most reliable connection between subdivision residents and the community is children. Adults meet through the children’s activities. I often heard that new neighborhoods coalesce around new elementary schools, which have many parent-involving activities and are also convenient places to hold meetings. The churches (mostly Protestant and Catholic, but the town has places of worship for Jews and even Muslims) have made an effort to perform some of the same functions—there is always a new church under construction, and eight congregations are operating out of rented space. The Reverend Keith Torney, who recently left the First Congregational Church in Naperville, after eighteen years, fora pulpit in Billings, Montana, told me, “We try to create a community where people can acquire roots very quickly. We divided the congregation into twelve care groups. Each has twenty to thirty families. They kind of take over for neighbors and grandma—they bring the casserole when you’re sick. People come here for a sense of warmth, for a sense that people care about you.”

ALL THESE COMMUNUNITY-building efforts amount to swimming against the tide, though, because population mobility in the newer parts of Naperville is great. According to local lore, the average house in Naperville changes hands every three years—a turnover rate comparable to or higher than those Whyte and Gans found in Park Forest and Levittown, and they were entirely new communities, whereas Naperville has a large well-established area that presumably brings the average turnover down. Naperville has two school districts; in the one that covers the new subdivisions, new students make up more than a quarter of the enrollment every fall. And this kind of mobility is occurring at a time when corporate transfers, which were thought in the fifties to be the main reason people moved so much, are slightly in decline, because of a lessening in people’s willingness to do whatever their employers want.

There isn’t any hard information on where new Naperville residents come from or where departing ones go. Most of the people I met had moved to Naperville from elsewhere in the Chicago area, often from the inner-ring suburbs. They came there to be closer to their jobs along 1-88, because the schools are good and the crime rate is low, and because Naperville is a place where the person who just moved to town is not an outsider but the dominant figure in the community. If they leave, it’s usually because of a new job, not always with the same company; the amount of company-switching, and of entrepreneurship, appears to be greater today than it was in the fifties. Several of the new office developments in the area have the word corporate in their names. (I stayed in a hotel on Corporetum Drive.) Since the likes of AT&T and Amoco don’t call attention to themselves in this way, the use of the word is probably a sign of the presence of new businesses. People’s career restlessness, and companies’ desire to appear regally established right away, are further examples of the main message I got from my time in Naperville: the suburbs and, by extension, middle-class Americans have gone from glorifying group bonding to glorifying individual happiness and achievement.

THE BAD SIDE OF this change in ethos should be obvious right now: Americans appear to be incapable of the social cohesion and the ability to defer gratification which are prerequisites for the success of major national efforts. But a good side exists too. Representations of middleclass life in the fifties are pervaded with a sense of the perils of appearing to be “different.” William Whyte wrote a series of articles for Fortune, and the photographs that Dan Weiner took to illustrate them (which are included in America Worked, a new book of Weiner’s photographs) communicate this feeling even more vividly than The Organization Man docs: the suburban kaffeeklatsch and the executive’s office come across as prisons. There can’t be much doubt that the country is more tolerant now than it was then.

Much of the fifties literature, especially the fiction, is pervaded as well by a sense of despair. Of course, American intellectuals since about the time of the First World War have been trying to prove that middle-class life is empty, while most Americans have enthusiastically embraced it. Still, the dark side of suburbia was detected by so many observers that it’s hard to believe they all just projected it from their own minds onto their subject matter.

The darkest of all the suburban novels is probably Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, which was published in 1961 but is set in the summer of 1955, in “a part of western Connecticut.” In theme Revolutionary Road is similar to the television show thirtysomething: well-educated young people who think of themselves as hip and liberal marry, have children, and buy a house in the suburbs with the intention of retaining the ideals of their youth. In Revolutionary Road this endeavor leads inexorably to boozing, vicious quarreling, selfloathing, madness, and, ultimately, suicide. Frank, the husband, takes a meaningless job in the sales-promotion department of Knox Business Machines, purveyor of the Knox 500 Electronic Computer (computers were fifties intellectuals’ favorite symbol of everything that was wrong with America). April, the wife, keeps getting pregnant, to her horror.

Frank and April are not updated versions of the Babbitts. On the contrary, they are determined not to be Babbitts: they worry about conformity, listen to jazz, and struggle to understand Freud. So when they are destroyed, the message is not that they are victims of their own moral and cultural insensitivity but that the suburbs have no place for good people. To underscore the point, the minor character who, in occasional appearances, offers the most perceptive comments about Frank’s and April’s lives is an inmate of a mental hospital. It’s only when Frank and April can summon the self-delusion to engage in dull, bourgeois husbandwife role-playing that they feel momentarily content. Intellectual honesty equals misery.

Frank and April’s expectations are much lower materially than a similar couple’s would be now. A novelist with Yates’s talent for the damning detail surely would today have them acquiring lots of unnecessary and expensive trendy household items; in Revolutionary Road money is mentioned only rarely, and always in the context of necessities rather than luxuries. But then, Frank and April take it for granted that in every middle-class couple the man can find an easy and secure job that pays enough to support the whole family, and the woman can bear and raise healthy children.

Perhaps suburban life has become enough of a project to have filled in that old hollowness. Even the struggle against depression is much more of a busy-making activity than it used to be, thanks to the proliferation of therapies and support groups. Mortgages are bigger, jobs are more demanding, parenthood is a stretch in every way. Who has time to peer into the abyss?

—Nicholas Lemann