A Placemaking Journal

The Suburbs: Arcade Fire, Childhood Memory, and the Future of Growth

I’m in my 40s. I grew up in the suburbs. It was awesome. And then it wasn’t.

Never before and, perhaps, never again will there be as efficient and reliable a machine for manufacturing idealized childhood memories. The suburbs of the 60s and 70s, maybe even the 80s, were like some sort of paradise. Kids. Woods. A 7-11. Anything closer to perfect would have required the hand of the Divine.

But now they’re the object of smug, hipster derision, and snooty intellectual dismissal. They draw the ire of urban planners, public health advocates, environmentalists, and community activists. What the hell happened?

As singer Win Butler laments on The Suburbs, the latest offering from his indie collective Arcade Fire, “With my old friends, it was so different then, before your war against the suburbs began.”

From there, this new Merge Records release is a curvilinear ride of mixed and conflicting emotions, as the band dissects one of history’s most notorious broken promises and, in the process, reveals a subtext typically ignored in discussions about our patterns of growth and development: Sadness.

As we grew, especially those of us in and around Generation X, the suburbs that served us so well for a small window of time just couldn’t keep up. The very fact that they were so specifically conceived as Eden for breeders, a Utopian template for child-rearing, robbed them of the one thing most necessary for survival: the capacity for progressive adaptation.

First we built the road, then we built the town. And that’s why we’re still driving around and around.

The suburbs confront the prospect of evolution with just one option: The wholesale replacement of one thing with something new. Or, as Butler sings, “This town’s so strange, they built it to change, and while we sleep we know the streets get rearranged.”

Halcyon Days: Me and my brother in the suburbs of Washington, DC, circa 1970.

The result is several generations of people who have a hard time going home, as the places they find bear no relationship to the places they left behind. “Let’s take a drive through the sprawl, through these towns they built to change,” sings Butler. “… it’s no wonder that you feel so strange.”

This conflict over paradise lost is more than just the anxiety that accompanies change. It’s that the changes, almost universally, have been for the worse. We began life, in tandem with our suburban neighborhoods, full of potential. But as we grew closer to becoming the best of what we could be, our surroundings steadily declined.

Oh this city’s changed so much
Since I was a little child

Pray to God I won’t live to see
The death of everything that’s wild

Now we’re confronted with the reality of mourning their loss. Not in a nostalgic way that denies their ultimate failings but in a way that honors their original goal of creating a place where people could live, thrive and be happy.

In light of the changes that will define the next era of suburbs, that task means taking a good hard look at where we’ve come from while acknowledging where we as a culture are going. In short, it means getting it right this time. It means finding better ways to live together, not dreaming of impossible perfection just beyond the horizon.

Almost half of all Americans live in the suburbs and, according to urban land strategist Christopher Leinberger, the majority of our future development is going to take place there. So what form should it take? Michael Mehaffy, writing for Oregon Live, describes how “visionary suburban leaders are finding ways to retrofit their communities, adding new pedestrian, transit and bike connections, and improving the walkability and livability of streets. They’re encouraging attractive new mixed-use projects and compact, walkable neighborhoods close to jobs and transit.”

In essence, they’re introducing urban structure into suburban chaos and, in the process, creating a lasting framework conducive to incremental evolution. As we’ve learned the hard way, change happens whether we like it or not. But maybe now the places we love won’t have to simply go away. If we get it right, they can grow and mature, just as we do.

Taking on all these possibilities, learning from our mistakes in pursuit of something more permanent and resilient, is going to require a national emotional bloodletting — a collective gathering on the proverbial psychiatrist’s couch — to acknowledge the memories, conflicts and sense of abandonment we carry with us.

But as we ultimately move past our sadness and regret for the places we’ll never get back, we’re faced with the undeniable need to clean up from the party. And in that endeavor, the haunting retrospective beauty of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs provides the perfect soundtrack to get started.

The last defender of the sprawl said,
“Where do you kids live?”
“Well sir, if you only knew
what the answer is worth
I’ve been searching ever corner of the earth.”

–Scott Doyon

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