The Suburbs in Memory, Pop Culture, and Time: A Review of “The Sprawl”

"The Sprawl" cover

Picture the suburbs. Perhaps it’s wide streets that flatten out the light. Perhaps it’s the tight-knit, loving and irritated family in a huge, yet cozy house: the McCallisters in Home Alone or the Griswolds in Christmas Vacation. Perhaps it’s Carolyn Burnham’s pruning shears matching her gardening clogs in desperate unhappiness in American Beauty. Or perhaps it’s your childhood, your adulthood, your home. 

As we live in this time of science fiction, it’s comforting to turn to something even more bizarre: the suburbs. Part memoir and part cultural history, Jason Diamond’s methodical second book confronts where he comes from head on, and really, where a lot of us come from. Diamond was born in Skokie, Illinois and bounced around Chicagoland before moving to New York City as an adult. He begins, “It took me a long time to admit any of that. I was, at best, ambivalent about where I come from, but filled with pure hate is more like it.” In 11 densely packed chapters, Diamond challenges our views of suburbia; “We have so many ideas of what we think suburbia is, yet we don’t realize how suburban we’ve become, whether we live in them or not. While every suburb is different in some way, what links them from coast to coast is that undercurrent of strangeness, of bottled-up energy, rage, passion, and creativity—the great suburban exports.” He holds conflicting views himself: his own history with the suburbs is equally hated and loved. And all of this is just the introduction.  

The Sprawl’s first chapter addresses the difficulty in even defining a suburb today. There is the overwhelming artifice, sure, the squeaky-clean planned-ness. Sometimes I was picturing the reassuring John Hughes scenes and the next moment felt dropped into Jordan Peele’s horror movie Get Out. But, while suburbs are found all around America, “There’s no one single way a suburb should be, and there’s no catchall to describe what a suburb is. Despite that fact, we’ve built suburbia and the suburban lifestyle up to be a monolith in the American mind.”

Diamond then delves into the complex history of suburb development, akin to a religion. “Get out of the city and not only will you be healthier and happier, but you’ll also get closer to the heavens: the people who founded Evanston and Lake forest felt that.” Diamond continues, “There was something in these places, that promise of not just spiritual fulfillment, but playing a part in great big Biblical things just by living and contributing. It’s trying for literal Utopia, spiritual enlightenment through good landscaping. That was the goal of places like Llewellyn Park and Zion, and that hope of finding something—maybe not as big as seeing Jesus descend from heaven and walk across your lawn—is what modern suburbia is still all about. It might not be religious, but the modern suburbs, the places that came after the Llewellyn Parks and Zions, are often sold as places where the chosen few can get a little closer to fulfillment.”

Diamond later focuses a good deal on his old, specific stomping ground and I felt I was strolling alongside him through these blank streets, in a 90s flannel shirt, listening to someone friendly with an angry edge whose caffeinated ramblings are studded with insights that I had all the time in the world to listen to. Charmingly, what seems to lead the narrative is what he wants to talk about. Diamond reflects on his own childhood, where his relationship with the suburbs began: 1980, in Buffalo Grove, in “the upper-middle-class mansion on the hill.” “I related to all these things because I am a product of the sprawl. My childhood was, for all intents and purposes, an unhappy one. My parents divorced when I was young, and I experienced mental and physical abuse from them growing up.” It’s been proven that the suburbs themselves ignite anxiety in kids, as if they intuit that it’s a fake space that contains more of what they want than what they need.

In a way, the formation of suburbs was humanity creating its own movie set: temporary hope. There’s something off about the spacing and scale. Something distinctly unhuman and two-dimensional. “The look would create a certain feel, and the idea was the people would pay big money because these places felt like they came from a simpler time. As we’ve seen when it comes to suburbia, nothing goes according to plan.” Diamond reminds us that the suburbs have endured many changes over the years. “While Hughes (who died in 2009) has long been lauded for his ability to portray teenage characters in a more realistic, sympathetic light, his view of the suburbs was also a change, something in line with Norman Rockwell or Frank Capra’s vision of Anywhere, USA, where teens cause trouble but never anything too bad, and everything works out in the end.” And now, “There’s this obsession with the boring lives of suburbanites, especially when they aren’t what they’re pigeonholed to be. Because we’ve built up this image of the sameness of the suburbs—the Levittown white fences, the paperboy waving hello, the cul-de-sacs, the boredom—it’s fascinating when something doesn’t go according to script” (76). Today the suburban mentality is addressed somewhat with the movement “normcore”, the show The Office, the term “washed,” etc. 

Another large part of suburbs were the malls. As they’re torn down and abandoned throughout the country Diamond wonders if there’s any way to save their souls. What’s sprouted in their place is immense indoor markets/shopping centers: “a mall in the middle of a business park.” “Traveling the country from DC to San Francisco, these sorts of places seem to be popping up almost overnight—new developments disguised as ‘neighborhoods’ that feel familiar to anybody who spent time in the suburbs but totally foreign and strange if you live in a city. They’re cold, both in temperature and design. They’re spotlessly clean and expensive. CityCenterDC, for example, which broke ground in 2011 and was completed in 2015, is a mixed-used development with residential space, two office buildings, and a luxury hotel. It also boasts Louis Vuitton and Hermes stores, not much below that pricewise. It’s free to the public to come in and walk around, but not everybody can afford everything, giving it that old suburban feeling that the place isn’t for everybody.”

Diamond aptly concludes that the suburbs have now seeped into our American soul. Between the hours we commute and the hours of screen time, we are living “the mental sprawl of everyday life.” What will save us is books, relationships, and reflection. And keeping our eyes open while walking the streets where we really live.


The Sprawl
Jason Diamond
Coffee House Press; 256 p.

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