In 1986, when Lemann moved from Austin, Texas, to New York, “the prevailing idea was that the suburbs were for the privileged few and the cities for the poor, the bohemian, and the principled,” he wrote in a recent New Yorker essay—"Get Out Of Town: Has the celebration of cities gone too far?" (The essay is behind a paywall; the link is to the abstract.) The suburbs were seen as “conformist, anti-intellectual, homogeneous, antifeminist, alcoholic, and shot through with anomie.” Almost all of Lemann’s friends who grew up in New York suburbs vowed in adolescence to leave as soon as they could, and never return.
That view of cities and suburbs persisted, Lemann wrote. But lately, “Cities and suburbs have started to seem less like fundamental opposites, and more like points on a continuum.”
Lemann is a New Yorker staff writer, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and author of several acclaimed nonfiction books. He and his family lived in the New York City suburb of Pelham for 21 years before moving a few years ago to an apartment in NYC. “We’re all intermittently homesick, especially at this time of year, when suburbia feels like the land of fecundity, as green as a jungle.” Most people moved to Pelham because they couldn’t afford to live “decently” in the city with their kids, Lemann wrote. But “As time passed, our collective secret became clear. It wasn’t just good public schools and one bedroom per child that kept us in Pelham. We actually liked it—liked the houses, the slower pace, the regular unplanned access to each other.”
Lemann went on, “Is there really a huge pent-up demand to move from the suburbs to the city, just waiting to be released by wiser government politics?” Around the world, most people who have a chance to leave dense inner cities do so, he noted, though they remain in metro areas. In the first half of the twentieth century, Americans flooded cities; in the second half, they flooded suburbs. By 2000, the majority lived in suburbs. Lemann asked: “Can this great tide really be reversed just by raising gas taxes and easing urban building codes, or should we figure that sprawl is here to stay, and focus on managing it better?”
“Masters of the new economy, social visionaries, and tongue-studded app developers figure large in the imagination of urban theorists these days,” he concluded, “but most people are looking for something pretty mundane: a neighborhood, a patch of ground, a measure of peace and security, a family, status, dignity. In twentieth-century America, some people found those things in tightly packed neighborhoods. Far more found them in the suburbs.”