Are Suburbs the Future?

The dream of the city could be on its way out.

aerial photo of a suburban development
Bob Sacha / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What are your thoughts on cities versus suburbs?

Feel free to discuss their past, present, or future; their pluses and minuses; their respective roles in American life; or where you choose to live and why. As always, I encourage but do not require answers that draw on your own life experiences, so feel free to opine on specific cities or suburbs. And if nothing immediately comes to mind, perhaps the fodder below will prove inspiring.

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com


Conversations of Note

I grew up in the suburbs. And I have lived in the city––in New York City; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Paris; and Seville, plus significant stretches in San Francisco, Munich, and Berlin.

I see the appeal of both kinds of places. My “hometown” of Orange County, California, is about as good as it gets for suburbia: It has the best stretch of beaches in Southern California and a significant immigrant population from Mexico, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, China, India, which provides cultural diversity—and also better food than many metropolises.. And my 20s and 30s happened to coincide with an urban renaissance that I didn’t see coming as an adolescent in the high-crime 1990s.

Gangsta rap, movies about the crack wars, and the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed were my earliest impressions of city life. Then I graduated from college in 2002 into a country where cities were suddenly safer than they’d been in a generation––and to the surprise of many, they kept getting safer and safer for years.

“No place feels so changed as the city of Los Angeles,” the journalist Sam Quinones wrote in late 2014. He explained:

In 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that gang crime had dropped by nearly half since 2008. In 2012, L.A. had fewer total homicides (299) citywide than it had gang homicides alone in 2002 (350) and in 1992 (430). For the most part, Latino gang members no longer attack blacks in ways reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. Nor are gangs carjacking, assaulting, robbing, or in a dozen other ways blighting their own neighborhoods.

Quinones described the significance of the change this way:

This has amounted to an enormous tax cut for once-beleaguered working class neighborhoods. Stores are untagged, walls unscarred. Graffiti, which sparked gang wars for years, is almost immediately covered up. Once-notorious parks—El Salvador Park in Santa Ana, Smith Park in San Gabriel, Bordwell Park in Riverside are a few examples—are now safe places for families … The changes on Southern California streets over the last few years are unlike anything I’ve seen in my decades of writing about gangs. For the first time, it seems possible to tame a plague that once looked uncontrollable—and in doing so allow struggling neighborhoods, and the kids who grow up in them, a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, homicides in cities across the country spiked with the onset of the pandemic. Additionally, rising homelessness and addiction pose challenges to many city-dwellers’ quality of life.

In the Los Angeles Times, Rachel Uranga captures the consequences in a harrowing article about drug use and crime in L.A.’s public-transportation system:

Drug use is rampant in the Metro system. Since January, 22 people have died on Metro buses and trains, mostly from suspected overdoses—more people than all of 2022. Serious crimes—such as robbery, rape and aggravated assault—soared 24% last year...

“Horror.” That’s how one train operator recently described the scenes he sees daily. He declined to use his name because he was not authorized to talk to the media. Earlier that day, as he drove the Red Line subway, he saw a man masturbating in his seat and several people whom he refers to as “sleepers,” people who get high and nod off on the train.

“We don’t even see any business people anymore. We don’t see anybody going to Universal. It’s just people who have no other choice than to ride the system, homeless people and drug users.”

Commuters have abandoned large swaths of the Metro train system … For January, ridership on the Gold Line was 30% of the pre-pandemic levels, and the Red Line was 56% of them. The new $2.1-billion Crenshaw Line that officials tout as a bright spot with little crime had fewer than 2,100 average weekday boardings that month … The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported deaths linked to fentanyl rose from 109 in 2016 to 1,504 in 2021, amounting to a 1,280% increase.

Josh Barro argues in Very Serious that such transit-system woes in L.A. and elsewhere ought to be of greater concern to leftists who ostensibly want more Americans to live in cities and take public transportation. He writes:

People on the left have simply grown uncomfortable talking about the idea that crime—even less-serious crime—imposes significant social costs and requires policing and sometimes incarceration to address it. It’s more fun to talk about zoning. But this isn’t a problem that will be fixed with zoning. What’s needed on the subways is enforcement of rules: We need to go back to arresting people for illegal activity on transit, including fare-beating and for public drug use. If you’re using the subway as a place to sleep instead of as transportation, you’re trespassing. The subway is some of the most expensive and useful public infrastructure we have, and moving problems of homelessness and drug use and other disorder elsewhere, even into the streets, is not simply passing the buck—it’s moving the buck to a place where it imposes a lower social cost...

I realize that sounds cold, but letting homeless people and addicts take over the subway does not address problems of homelessness or addiction. It would be great if LA could move everyone without a home into permanent supportive housing, but the city has been unable to translate billions of dollars of taxpayer funds into an effective solution to the problem of homelessness. The immediate options facing LA are that it can have a terrible homelessness and addiction problem and a subway that people are willing to ride, or it can have a terrible homelessness and addiction problem and a subway that people are unwilling to ride. So far, the city is choosing the latter.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, where I have personally had my car window smashed while it was parked overnight, S.F. local Snehal Antani took to Twitter last week to complain about how a colleague was treated while visiting the city:

A teammate visiting San Francisco for an offsite called me frantically last night. After dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf they came back to a smashed car window and 2 stolen backpacks. $10K in gear lost, passports gone, etc. … “Laptop bags were in the trunk, nothing visible from the street”, a typical description of a smash & grab, yet thieves were able to find the specific car and knew to pull the rear seat down and reach into the trunk… how?

I explained, “these aren’t homeless [randomly] smashing windows. These are professionals using blue tooth [sic] scanners to find laptop bags. And idle iPad, Bose headphones, etc all emit Bluetooth. And let me guess, it was the rear window facing the street, because thieves drive up to the car, open their door, then smash+grab. A witness must be directly behind the thieves [to] see anything, all other views are blocked.”

My teammate said his companion was on the phone with the police, to which I said, “they don’t care. Maybe they’ll show up in a few hours, they’ll likely make you go to the station, but this happens thousands of times per week.” [Editor’s note: According to San Francisco crime data from across 2022, thefts from vehicles averaged less than 400 a week last year.] So now I need to include a pre-visit security brief to people traveling San Francisco. This is a big reason I’m hesitant to open an office in the city versus keeping a remote team and occasionally meeting up at a location to whiteboard. And my teammates will be scarred forever, being robbed hits you at your core, especially when it’s thousands of dollars of loss. There is no downtown recovery without an aggressive push for safety @LondonBreed. The next mayor will win by running on a simple platform: 1, safe neighborhoods; 2, Clean Streets; 3, great public schools

In a series of replies (some of which have since been deleted), John Hamasaki, a former San Francisco police commissioner and a current district-attorney candidate, wrote:

Interesting. Would getting your car window broken and some stuff stolen leave you “scarred forever”?

Is this what the suburbs do to you? Shelter you from basic city life experiences so that when they happen you are broken to the core?

I’ve had my window broken 2x when I was living paycheck to paycheck. It sucked financially, but it had zero impact on my sense of public safety.

I can’t even imagine the world one must live in where this would be the most traumatizing incident in their life.

Again, not to say it doesn’t suck. But maybe city life just isn’t for you. It’s not the suburbs. There is crime.

I’m grateful most of it is property crime instead of violent crime. But I’ve always felt safe in San Francisco, even after being on the wrong side of violent crime.

Hamasaki also wrote, “Name a big city in the US where you can just leave 10k worth of stuff in your car? It’s not San Francisco these people hate, it’s cities.”

In UnHerd, Joel Kotkin suggests that, contra the wishes of urbanists, the suburbs are once again the future:

London, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles—these urban centres epitomised what Jean Gottmann described in 1983 as “transactional cities”. Based on finance, high-end business and IT services, they were defined not by production and trade in physical goods, but by intangible products concocted in soaring office towers. For years, academic researchers, both on the Left and Right, envisioned a high-tech economic future dominated by dense urban areas. As The New York Times’s Neil Irwin observed in 2018: “We’re living in a world where a small number of superstar companies choose to locate in a handful of superstar cities where they have the best chance of recruiting superstar employees.”

… Migration to dense cities started to decline in 2015, when large metropolitan areas began to see an exodus to smaller locales. By 2022, rural areas were also gaining population at the expense of cities. The pandemic clearly accelerated this process, with a devastating rise in crime and lawlessness: notably in London, Paris, Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago. In some parts of Chicago and Philadelphia, young men now have a greater chance of being killed by firearms than an American soldier serving during the Afghanistan or Iraq wars.

The fading allure of the big city—further undermined by the post-pandemic shift to remote work in many sectors—is also taking place against the backdrop of an urban economy that has increasingly rewarded the few ... almost a fifth of residents in the 50 largest US cities live below the poverty line. Contrast this with the historic role of cities as engines of upward mobility. Even the addition last year of a few thousand migrants forced New York Mayor Eric Adams to declare a state of emergency; in other words, New York, a city largely built on the labour of newcomers, now seems too weak to house and employ a substantial number of immigrants. Amid this failure, perhaps it’s unsurprising that migrants and minorities are heading to America’s suburbs, sprawled sunbelt cities and smaller towns. So what is the urban future? The answer lies less in the central business districts than the suburbs and exurbs.

And this presents a nightmare for the traditional urbanist.

Is he right, or is another urban renaissance ahead?


Provocation of the Week

At a press conference hosted by the Internet Archive, its founder, Brewster Kahle, addressed Hachette v. Internet Archive, a Supreme Court case that addresses digital lending and copyright. Kahle argued that digital libraries ought to be free to operate much as brick- and-mortar libraries do:

The Internet Archive is a library I founded 26 years ago. This library has brought hundreds of years of books to the wikipedia generation, and now 4 massive publishers are suing to stop us.

As the world now looks to their screens for answers, what they find is often not good. People are struggling to figure out what is true and it is getting harder. Digital learners need access to a library of books, a library at least as deep as the libraries we older people had the privilege to grow up with.

The Internet Archive has worked with hundreds of libraries for decades to provide such a library of books. A library where each of those books can be read by one reader at a time. This is what libraries have always done.

We also work with libraries that are under threat. We work with many libraries that have closed their doors completely—libraries with unique collections: Claremont School of Theology, Marygrove College of Detroit, cooking school of Johnson & Wales Denver, Concordia College of Bronxville NY, Drug Policy Alliance’s library of NYC, the Evangelical Seminary of Pennsylvania. I have looked these librarians in the eye and told them that we are there for them.

They entrust their books to us, as a peer library, to carry forward their mission. Most of the books are not available from the publishers in digital form, and never will be. And as we have seen, students, researchers and the print-disabled continue to use these books for quotations and fact checking. And I think we can all agree we need to be able to do fact checking.

Here’s what’s at stake in this case: hundreds of libraries contributed millions of books to the Internet Archive for preservation in addition to those books we have purchased. Thousands of donors provided the funds to digitize them.

The publishers are now demanding that those millions of digitized books, not only be made inaccessible, but be destroyed.

This is horrendous. Let me say it again—the publishers are demanding that millions of digitized books be destroyed.

And if they succeed in destroying our books or even making many of them inaccessible, there will be a chilling effect on the hundreds of other libraries that lend digitized books as we do. This could be the burning of the Library of Alexandria moment—millions of books from our community’s libraries—gone.

The dream of the Internet was to democratize access to knowledge, but if the big publishers have their way, excessive corporate control will be the nightmare of the Internet. That is what is at stake.

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