Walking into the condo complex felt strangely like entering another world, a valley walled on both sides by identical two-story buildings with blue siding and white trim that crowded an asphalt access road. A row of tiny garage doors were beneath the awkward roof lines of puzzled together floor plans, with tunnel-like paths leading to entryways off the main road. Inside, my parents were hastily unpacking cardboard boxes, and my dad asked me what I thought of the new place, telling me how much he liked it with thin, unconvincing enthusiasm. The move was the consequence of him losing his high-paying job to a corporate power play, and it had hurt him pretty badly. Looking out on a ten by ten foot patio surrounded by an eight foot wall, it was hard to respond positively. I felt strange. This place felt strange, desolate, as if no one else lived in the other condos that crowded upward around the patio, blocking out the sun. It was large on condo standards, with a fireplace and an upstairs washer and drier, three bathrooms, an office, and a guest room. But something about it seemed synthetic and thrown together. I couldn't shake uneasiness.
After dinner, my sister and I went for a walk outside, taking a seat on the red curb that separated the access road from a narrow ravine. We stared out together at a drab office complex on the other side, ringed by an empty asphalt parking lot, a siren wailing in the distance. There seemed something inhumane about this place, something ugly. It was more than the careless, repetitive construction of the condos or our depressing view of the beige office park. It was everything, the fact that across the road behind us there was another faceless complex, and up the road another, neighbors crammed on top of each other and yet painfully alone, doors shut. It was the landscape, the numbing strip-mall homogeneity, the anonymous currents of cars. I started to cry.
This was the American Dream? Sitting in this eerie place, the promise of a house for every family and a car in every garage seemed a cruel lie. To me, no matter what the square footage or how many consumer goods filled that space, living here was the definition of poverty. For an instant, I saw myself differently, a man watching his parents move into a void. My imagination unrolled all the asphalt and uninspired construction, ripping up my conception of our surroundings and replacing them with a new reality. We were in the middle of nowhere. There was no soul to this place, just buildings, thrown up at minimal expense. These condos felt degrading, like the emotional equivalent of a labor camp, carelessly crammed off the side of the freeway, just another driveway interrupting the unused sidewalk. There was no public space anywhere around us, no relief from the monotony of big box retail, condos, and office parks. None of it felt permanent. It didn't feel like a community. And if it wasn't a community, then what was it?
Suburbia is the abdication of civic responsibility for the design of our living spaces to the commercial sector. Towns used to grow organically, but the post World War II building boom took a different approach, the planned community. Modern development typically divides a space into broad single-use zones. One developer gets a plot of land only for houses, the next only for shopping, the next for offices. Between these homogenous chunks of land are thousands of miles of pavement that connect it all together. And because each area is solely dedicated to only one purpose, residents have no choice but to drive for even the most basic of daily activities. The average suburban household generates 13 car trips per day, and the huge volume of traffic must be handled by multilane collector roads, which are optimized for automobile efficiency, not human use.
The inevitable result is the typical American suburban area, the sprawl. Commercial establishments moved away from the urban center and transformed themselves into the ubiquitous shopping center, pulling away from the street to make room for ever-expanding parking lots and erecting massive free-standing signs to attract the attention of speeding motorists. The congestion means that motorists have little time for the multiple stops that would be possible with foot travel, and consequently, retailers must clump together around large lots in order to survive, further centralizing traffic patterns and thus further worsening traffic. The result is a vicious positive feedback loop that isolates the segregated zones even further, squeezing smaller centers that fail to offer enough variety in a single car trip.
I watched this process transform Santee, the community of my childhood in east San Diego County. It's shopping centers used to be filled with family-run restaurants and local grocery store chains. It was suburban, but had a pretty strong sense of community nonetheless, at least in comparison with more crowded, apartment-dominated towns nearby. But in the early nineties, Santee began a development called Town Center, which brought its first big box store, the Home Depot. Soon after came Wal Mart, and then a K-Mart on the other end of town. As the new stores arrived, traffic patterns began to shift. The smaller centers on the periphery gradually began to cycle through one failed business after another. Another shopping center with a Target and a TJ Max later, the transformation was complete. The quiet community is now another bustling chain-store hell. The failed grocery store that I used to walk to from my house has been converted into a megachurch.
The problem with zoned suburban development centered around large collector roads is that this story is the inevitable result. Once the roads are in place, the process is in motion, and the pressure from developers is constant. But after they win, locally owned businesses don't stand a chance against the high-overhead, high-volume chain stores that can attract traffic. Without local ownership, the community loses its identity to an endless stream of national brands that make it look and act like everywhere else. Welcome to Nowhere in Particular, USA.
The American urban environment is losing its humanity, changing to physically to mirror the metaphoric capitalist machine attempting to maximize its production. We have places to eat, sleep, shop, and work, all scattered randomly across the ravaged landscape. But what's missing is any sense that this sprawl has a center, that it means anything. We can stay at home, where our houses and apartments and condominiums are designed with ever less regard for fostering interaction with our neighbors. Or we can get in our cars and drive, perhaps in a desperate attempt to be among other people. But drive where? To which parking lot? An office park? A shopping mall? A megaplex? None of these consumption or production oriented activities really add up to an authentic public space.
Increasingly, American children are learning to associate entertainment with consumption. And why shouldn't they? Their environment offers them no other options. Empty streets greet them outside. And if they want to leave, they'll have to get a ride. Public schools are changing in design, ever more distant from the students they serve, surrounded by ever more parking, schools to which no child will ever walk. When I finally earned my driver's license, it felt like I was being let out of jail. Finally, I had the freedom to go visit my friends, to interact with the rest of my world rather than being stuck at the mercy of my parents. Yet after the novelty wore off, living in suburban culture can still feel like prison. Increasingly, we don't know or trust our neighbors, even–or perhaps especially–in the wealthiest of neighborhoods. And when we leave in search of this community, we find instead just more opportunities to consume, with all the fanfare and novelty of a parking lot and an encounter with a minimum wage worker.
The dominance of the automobile is making us a sedentary culture, but worse, it's isolating us from one another and homogenizing our daily experience. And while the standard of living may be going up, look around you. I'd say that the quality of life is plunging, smothered in the soul-crushing mediocrity of seedy retail shopping centers. They say we're the middle class, but I have to wonder if we aren't just the new underclass of the highly industrialized societies. We own nothing, toil in isolated office parks, eat reheated food from bags that match the buildings of fast food chains, and live in mass produced homes that are plonked down in expanding swaths at the frontier of the advancing development. The structure of our built environment forces us into the role of super consumer, burning gasoline at all times, wearing out tires, buying Red Bull at 7-11 and towels at Linens and Things to salve the disconnection. We're free, but not from the burden of car ownership. We're brave, but not brave enough to strike up conversation in line at Starbucks. Our lukewarm lives of convenience convince us we are the luckiest citizens of the world. Meanwhile, they are robbing us of our souls