Where they cut down all the trees and name the streets after them.
"Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same."
— Malvina Reynoldsnote
The place where the Dom Com
People live in houses that, while not exactly palatial, are still a lot bigger than they ought to be. Most of the houses look alike
, having been built according to the same two or three plans. Instead of a Main Street like most small towns, a suburb will have The Mall
, be it a big, enclosed shopping center or a strip mall with a Walmart
. You can walk or ride a bike to a few places, but not most of them, so plots involving the availability of a car (such as the Very Special Episode
about drunk driving) are possible.
A deep well of satire and (often not very affectionate
) parody, especially from disaffected youth. The fact that we have an entire trope about this, Stepford Suburbia
, speaks volumes about the way many Americans view the suburban lifestyle.
in TV has three distinct flavors.
- California, which is essentially The City, except that people have yards. Most people are college educated, middle-class, and at least slightly liberal. If not California, then the Northeast is readily available.
- The Midwest, which is more rural. Family Values often abound. Frequent forays into the Quirky Town and the Town with a Dark Secret. Poorer and less educated than their coastal brethren, and somewhat more likely to be conservative. Often, these portrayals stray far from real life and enjoy an undercurrent of hypocrisy (the respectable church-goers are all sleeping with each other), partly to add color, but mostly because the Midwest is just slightly less alien than Mars to most of the folks who write TV.
- The gated community. Entrance to this neighborhood is restricted to residents, mail and delivery men, cops, and visitors, with a guard booth at the road in and out. Often shares the conservatism of Midwestern suburbs, with the residents of the community hoping to create a idyllic life for themselves, just like in those Fifties sitcoms, free from "those people" outside. There's also a big element of snobbery and class warfare — these people bought their way into Sunnyside Estates, thank you very much.
Now for the boring history lesson. While American cities have always had suburbs, especially in the early 20th century with the rise of inexpensive streetcar, automobile, and rail transit, the modern concept of suburbia didn't take off until after World War II
, when the G.I. Billnote
, cheap gas, cheap land, the new Interstate Highway System, and the postwar baby boom created an enormous demand for housing that couldn't be met by the cities alone. As a result, cities began to expand outward rather than upward. Similar factors were in play in other countries, like Canada and Australia, both of which also now have very large suburban populations. The US suburb as we understand it (lots of houses, big lawns, happy laughing white children, etc.) was more or less invented in Chicago at that time. The first purpose built suburb with this design was envisioned as a giant park, a huge relaxing playground that people happened to live in. Thus the open, rolling properties with no fences or walls between them.
American suburbia was subject to de facto
(and sometimes de jure
) segregation in both the North and the South, with real estate agencies often barring their realtors from letting black families see homes in the nicest neighborhoods (a process known as redlining), black veterans often having trouble getting their G.I. Bill benefits, and contracts frequently prohibiting white homeowners from selling their property to black families. While these shady tactics were outlawed in The '60s
, by this point the predominant whiteness of suburbia was well-entrenched. In The '70s
and beyond, this made it attractive for people upset with the more far-reaching forms of desegregation
), leading to a phenomenon known as "white flight" in which middle-class white families moved out to the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them and leaving the cities behind to decay. Eventually, even those who had elected to "stay and fight" for desegregation (including, ironically, much of the nascent black
middle and upper classes) saw themselves forced to flee to the suburbs out of economic necessity due to the resulting collapse of the inner cities. This booming suburban voting bloc was a key component in the "Reagan
coalition" that rose to power in The '80s
Starting around the Turn of the Millennium
we have seen a quiet reversal of the suburban trend, with a plethora of young people, typically college-aged or in their twenties, migrating back into the inner cities, leading to increased gentrification in those areas. A few likely causes of this movement include frustration with the suburban lifestyle, economic opportunity, the lower cost of renting an apartment in the city versus owning a house in the suburbs, the perception that automobile-dependent suburbia is environmentally wasteful, and a desire to "transform" what are viewed as needy communities. Ten years later
, the first of this wave's kids are starting to send their kids to Inner City Schools
Note that, in much of Europe, the suburbs have very
different connotations, and are often depicted as ghettoes and housing projects where the chronically poor and recent immigrants find themselves in — not unlike how the inner city is depicted in American media. Compare, say, the British trope of the Council Estate
, which is, superficially and functionally, similar to suburbia (they're both cheap housing built after the war on the outskirts of the city), but is associated with poverty and crime rather than safety and prosperity. American-style suburbia, with single-family homes occupied by middle-class families, does exist in Europenote
, but it's uncommon due to much tougher land use and zoning laws necessitated by Europe's relative lack of space.note
These connotations are more in line with how suburbs have traditionally been viewed — "suburbs" translates from Latin as "under-city", or the red-light district. That's the meaning William Shakespeare
would have had in mind when, in Measure for Measure
, he has Mistress Overdone keeping a bawdy house in the suburbs. Even North American suburbs are prone to the same thing: for example, some suburbs of Toronto, Canada are notorious for gangs and recent shootings, namely around Scarborough and Jane & Finch (named for the two streets forming the intersection)note
, and the Chicago suburb of Harvey, Illinois (which itself is similarly unsafe) was home to the Dixie Square Mallnote
, as featured in The Blues Brothers
For examples in fiction where all of the houses look basically alike, see Cut-and-Paste Suburb