David Brooks (registration required) has an interesting article on the ongoing decentralization of American life. He's addressing some of the political import of that, but I'm interested in the event itself - I live in one of these exurban areas that he talks about:
In my book I tried to describe the culture in these places - the office parks, the big-box malls, the travel teams and the immigrant enclaves. But when it came to marketing the book, I failed in two important ways.
I couldn't figure out how to tell the people in exurbia that I had written a book about them. Here I was writing about places like Loudoun County, Va., and Polk County, Fla., but my book tour took me to places like downtown Philadelphia, downtown Seattle and the Upper West Side. The places I was writing about are so new, and civic life is as yet so spare, there are few lecture series or big libraries to host author talks. The normal publishing infrastructure is missing.
I was about to give a reading in Berkeley when I asked a few of the bookstore employees if they sold many copies of Rick Warren's book, "The Purpose-Driven Life." They weren't familiar with the book, even though it has sold millions and millions of copies. I realized there are two conversations in this country. I was in the establishment conversation, but somehow I needed to get into the Rick Warren conversation and I could never find a way.
Columbia, Maryland is one of decentralized, exurban areas he's talking about. There are 100,000 people living here - but there's no actual city government (the Rouse company manages the various villages in Columbia, but our government is county level). There's a "downtown" in Columbia, but it's a mall and a handful of office buildings - surrounded by residential housing.
Most people living here live in single family homes with a yard - typically about 1/5th an acre or so. This kind of town is denigrated by urban dwellers as "having no culture", but there are reasons people choose to live here rather than in one of the nearby cities (Baltimore or Washington):
- Safer neighborhoods - there's far, far less crime here.
- Better schools - the neighborhood schools in Howard County are quite good, and that alone attracts parents in (it's one of the things that drove our decision to live here)
- Lots of good shopping and restaurants - we have a very wide variety of places to pick from in either category, and all of them are easy to get in and out of. In contrast, parking in Baltimore or DC is a nightmare
- Lots (and lots) of activities for kids. There are sports teams, dance clubs - you name it, there's a club or group sponsoring it
We almost never go into Washington or Baltimore - last time we hit DC was when relatives came and we toured with them. I can't recall the last time I went into Baltimore - it simply doesn't exist as a destination for me.
A lot of this is self reinforcing, I think. I grew up in an outer suburb of New York City - IBM country in Dutchess County, New York. Other than school field trips (and later, Yankee games) - I never went into New York. I never really felt like I was missing anything, either. There are lots of people my age who have the same sort of life experience - grew up in the suburbs, moved into one later on. We never experienced city life, and really don't have any notion that we are missing anything. I've visited lots of cities in my work life, and there are plenty of them I like - Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto - but I have less than no interest in living in that kind of environment.
This has all sorts of implications for marketing and politics - the suburbs aren't all like Levittown (and realistically, I wonder if they ever were)...