I remember when I was a Freshman in high school living in Lexington, KY, I had a major chip on my shoulder for being a “boring middle-class suburban kid.” I basked in the Sturm und Drang of this, and in fact wrote a short poem called “Suburbs” when I was 14. As luck would have it, I still have a copy of that cathartic masterpiece:
by 14-year-old Price Armstrong
A bursting dam of lunacy engulfing the premises
Insanity shrouding the land like the smell of homemade biscuits
a madhouse of a town we call suburbia
a misspent youth of misspent money of misspent power
handed down to you on a silver platter
thoughtless spending all on the things you’ve never wanted but need to have
a blindness inflicted by your own ignorance
a judgement clouded with material possessions so thick
you can’t see your hand.
Oh look! A tree! You must care about the environment!
look! He gives to the poor!!
Nothing but ratty old shoes and shirts promoting last years fad
no thanks, I think I’ll stick to downtown
where the people don’t care
but at least they don’t pretend to
Good Lord, this poem hits all the usual critiques of the suburbs: conspicuous consumption, environmental devastation, hypocritical judgmental neighbors, and it ended with a shout-out to downtown. I’m cringing as I read this for so many reasons. First, the pretense that I spent any amount of time “downtown” when I was 14 is hilarious; when I wrote this poem, I spent 99% of my time miles from downtown Lexington, mostly because downtown was so dead back then (things have gotten better). Second, the scorn that I dish out is so laughable, as if I were doing more than just trying copy the cool kids’ angsty rejection of the mundane middle class.
Nonetheless, my antipathy toward the ‘burbs never really changed – it just got deeper. The movie American Beauty became one of my favorite films; I loved the commentary on the banality of suburban living. My distaste for the auto-dependency, the social isolation, and the environmental devastation of suburban sprawl only grew, albeit in an incoherent, intuitive way. Until I became an urban planner, that is.
Who knows, maybe those adolescent rebellions against the status quo (in this case, this suburbs) were what led me to the urban planning field. Most planners today recognize the value of human-scaled architectural design, of mixed land uses, of transportation options. They agree with Kunstler’s criticism that most post-war residential development is the “Geography of Nowhere.” These values tend to be urban values, and – as much as I hate to admit it – jibe with my angst-filled adolescent scorn for what I considered “suburban.”
So you can imagine my displeasure when someone referred to my current city of residence, Holyoke, as a “suburb.”
Suburban vs. Urban
One of the reasons that my wife and I ended up in Holyoke had to do specifically with not wanting to end up in, what I referred to as, “The middle of nowhere.” Downtown Holyoke has a lot of multifamily housing, indistinguishable from what you’d find in the Allston/Brighton or Jamaica Plain neighborhoods of Boston. In fact, even though we live in a single family home, just around the corner from us are two- and three-family homes.
Furthermore, Holyoke has excellent transit service, is extremely diverse, and has an entire district dominated by heavy industry (admittedly a lot of it sitting abandoned). If you go downtown on a summer evening you will see people out in the streets, keeping cool while their kids run around and play.
Finally, not that this is a desirable thing, Holyoke has a lot of the problems that bigger cities have – a high poverty rate, drug trafficking, property crimes, blighted structures, etc. When I think of a “suburb,” basically all of the attributes I just described don’t fit the mold.
So why would someone refer to Holyoke as suburban?
As much as I don’t want to, I can think of a few reasons:
- As the Pioneer Valley has deindustrialized, more and more people commute elsewhere to work – especially Springfield and Amherst, even down to Hartford. Northampton, Holyoke, Chicopee, etc., are no longer the employment destinations they once were.
- The population has only modestly grown over the last fifty years, but the urban footprint is much bigger. While brick multifamily residential structures downtown have burned down or been neglected to the point of collapse, single-family housing has spread ever further into the country.
- Much of the new commercial growth in the region has been around the malls and highways, and malls and highways are perhaps the most defining features of a suburb. Recent new businesses near the Holyoke Mall include a car dealership, a Chipotle, and an Applebee’s.
So, despite my best efforts, did I end up accidentally living in a suburb?
Defining the Suburbs
As with most things, people smarter than I am have already thought about this issue. I found a meta-analysis reviewing how the suburbs have been defined by other researchers, with most using some combination of the following:
- Location – Where the suburbs are located
- Built environment characteristics – Development patterns, architectural style
- Transportation – How people travel
- Land use and zoning – How land uses are integrated or segregated (e.g. single-family residential zone, commercial zone, etc.)
- Political boundaries – Whether the area is a separate community
- Socio-cultural – Class, race, cultural heritage, etc.
- Styles of building, design, and planning – Who is building what and how the development process takes place
- Time – How new is the development relative to other parts of the metro area
- Critical assessments – Value judgment critical of the suburbs and implicit values and sensibilities that led to their development
- Indices – Quantitative analysis resulting in some index, like a Sprawl Index.
Reading this paper made me realize the incredible challenge of defining whether Holyoke, or Northampton, or even parts of Springfield can really be called “suburban.” One of the challenges is that suburbanization typically is thought of as a post-World War II phenomenon, but the Pioneer Valley was developed well before this period. Holyoke was incorporated in 1850 and reached its zenith in 1920; Northampton was established in 1653 and, like the rest of the region, had its heyday during the pre-war era.
Each community developed with its own city center, its own economic hub, its own identity. Transportation was difficult and expensive before highways, and even more difficult and expensive before the trolley. By necessity, most Pioneer Valley communities developed with their own economic base, their own sense of identity, and had transit-oriented, mixed use centers. Holyoke and Northampton and Chicopee have a history beyond being just suburbs of Springfield, whereas Levittown could not have existed without New York City.
New England is really old compared to a lot of the country, and urbanized earlier than the rest of the eastern seaboard. It is probably this unique history which throws a wrench into the dichotomy of urban/suburban.
Sure, it’s just semantics. Sure, a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. But as a matter of pride, as a matter of identity, and in order to live up to the standards set by the 14-year-old version of myself, I want to state for the record that I do not live in a suburb. I refuse to believe that Holyoke or Northampton are suburbs of Springfield!