'The Good Life' in Crisis : Suburbs Look More Like Cities as Growth and Sprawl Take Their Toll : Life style: Bedroom communities are evolving into metropolises themselves. But still people keep coming--and therein lies part of the problem.


When the suburban land rush began four decades ago, Claire Worthing was there to stake her claim.

William Levitt was planting houses on the old potato fields of Long Island, and each day dozens of young couples moved into Levittown, N.Y. Claire and her husband Jerry were among them.

"We felt like settlers," said Claire Worthing, who remembers a lot of mud and six months with no phone service. "You had a frontier feeling."

Today, she lives in a suburbia that no one would confuse with a frontier, a world of high-rise office buildings, sprawling industrial parks and seamless tracts of houses, all connected by ever more congested highways. Streets once filled with kids playing ball are now lined with cars: for working wives, for grown children living with parents, for commuters driving to work in other suburbs.

The spread of suburbanization since World War II has meant that the end of suburbia as its pioneers knew it. Long Island, the first Census Bureau metropolitan statistical area with no central city, has itself become a new kind of city--a suburban metropolis.

The new city has new problems. After an urban crisis in the 1970s and a rural one in the '80s, the nation may face a suburban crisis in the '90s--a crisis of growth so explosive that it is changing the good life that drew Americans to suburbia in the first place.

Nonetheless, they keep coming, despite the traffic, the long commutes, the cost. They are people like Joseph Pando, who, after several years of living upstairs in his mother's house in Queens, has saved enough to buy a house in Levittown.

Pando and his wife have a young daughter and are planning another child. They want more space, better schools and, above all, safer streets. "Queens is going down the drain, like the rest of New York," Pando said.

Attitudes like Pando's help explain why suburbanites have swelled in number from 35 million in 1950 to about 110 million today. They contain nearly half the population (urbanites account for only a third), and six of every 10 metropolitan area residents.

Where people have gone, business has followed. Factories and department stores moved to industrial parks and shopping malls years ago, and in this decade office buildings--the factories of the post-industrial economy--are joining them. The suburbs claim 60% of all office space and, in some metro areas, three of every four new jobs.

The suburb, which once defined itself in terms of the "urb"--an escape from, but dependent on, the city--is becoming self-sufficient, the site of art galleries, museums, theaters, concert halls, stadiums and French restaurants. The suburb, said University of Miami urban geographer Peter Muller, is "the essence of the modern metropolis."

Once the butt of urbanites' jokes, the suburb now enjoys a certain arrogance. Northpark, an office-retail complex north of Atlanta, is "a new city of north Atlanta," a promotional film boasts. "There is no need to leave. It is totally self-sufficient."

The new suburbia is alternately dense and sprawling, extending for dozens or scores of miles from the old city center, covering a circle 10 to 20 times larger than the traditional, pre-World War II city.

This suburban metropolis embraces skyscraper clusters with more office space than old central business districts; vast one-story manufacturing complexes; and new forms of the traditional bedroom community, some cheek-by-jowl with office or industrial parks, others miles from anything.

"We are now in the midst of the most rapid transformation of the city in its history," said Georgia State University geographer Truman Hartshorn. "For the past 2,000 years, the city had just one center. Now it has many."

Muller, the geographer, compares the suburban metropolis to a large pepperoni pizza, with the sausage slices representing the highway intersections where malls and office parks cluster. What used to be the big pepperoni--the central city--is merely first among equals, and sometimes not even that.

The deluxe pie is greater Los Angeles, with at least 18 different centers.

Just as cities once sprung up along rivers and rails, these suburban metropolises grow along highways and beltways originally designed for long-distance, interstate travel. Such routes are merging the old sovereign cities of Baltimore and Washington into a single metropolitan area--the largest marriage of its kind in history.

Suburbia also is turning up in unlikely places. People are commuting between New York and the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, between Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert, between Boston and Cape Cod. Metropolitan Washington is pushing into West Virginia.

Especially in cities, the image of suburbia is stuck in the '50s: a husband rides or drives to work in the city each morning and returns each night to his wife, kids and dog and their a single-family house and yard.

In reality, more than twice as many workers commute from suburb to suburb as from suburb to city, and only one in five plies the traditional suburb-city path. The condominium now rivals the one-family house as the most common new residential unit, and the nuclear family with one wage-earner no longer constitutes a majority of households.

Suburbia even looks different. The towers seen at the beginning of the television show "Dallas," are not in the city itself, but in Las Colinas, a planned suburb.

North of Atlanta, Greg Logan looks out his 15th floor window at a new American landscape--gleaming office buildings surrounded by vast parking lots.

This is Perimeter Center, an office park that lent its name to an area of office buildings, shopping malls and other businesses. Logan tells out-of-towners that he lives and works in Atlanta, but MARTA, the Atlanta rapid transit line, does not run here and the city's mayor holds no sway here.

"There is no mayor," Logan said. "There's no Perimeter Center Braves. But there's more jobs here than Raleigh or Charlotte."

And there are more office workers than in downtown Atlanta. Perimeter Center--just one of several major business centers outside the city--has 15.5 million square feet of office space, compared to 11.6 million square feet downtown, and a lower vacancy rate.

Situated near some of Greater Atlanta's most expensive residential areas, Perimeter Center is a success, many say, because people who run businesses don't want to spend hours driving to and from them.

The typical workplace is no longer an urban factory spewing pollution but a suburban office building spewing traffic. As metropolitan areas expand, and traffic worsens, the best suburbs to live in--River Oaks in Houston, Dunwoody in north Atlanta, Beverly Hills--are pleasant neighborhoods that also are near business centers.

Logan himself lives about four miles from his Perimeter Center office in a four-bedroom house on half an acre in the quiet community of Sandy Springs. When asked about his commute, he can barely contain his smugness.

"Ten minutes each way, unless there's traffic," he allows. "Then maybe 15. I never have to get on the freeway."

Three thousand miles away, sociologist Mark Gottdiener stands on a desert hill, looking down at what he calls "The Beast": Moreno Valley, Calif., one of the nation's fastest-growing communities.

This is the suburban frontier, 70 miles east of Los Angeles. "Ten years ago," he said, "there was nothing down there but rattlesnakes, coyotes and sagebrush." Today, there are 105,000 people. About 1,000 new ones move in a month, and four or five schools open each year.

But the principles on which Moreno Valley was developed are well established: Leapfrog beyond the urban fringe, where land is cheaper, and build 1,000 houses rather than 10. "That was the lesson of Levittown," Gottdiener said. "You can go anywhere and produce an instant city. You can plunk it in the middle of nowhere."

What you get is the ultimate commuters' community, since there are few good jobs in Moreno Valley itself. But those who can afford less than $160,000 for a home are drawn here, despite the long commutes to jobs in Los Angeles or Orange County.

When Bill Hampson, pastor of a local church, asks people why they don't go to church on Sunday, "the most common answer is commuting," he said. "A lot of people drive 100 miles a day, and the weekend is literally their only free time."

Baby-sitters advertise "commuter hours" from 4 a.m. until 7 p.m., and there are brisk sales in commuter paraphernalia such as books on tape and dashboard coffee mugs.

Someday, however, Moreno Valley will have its own factories and office buildings, and already some people are complaining that it is becoming too congested. Already, "For Sale" signs are posted on farmland in the towns further east, past the San Andreas Fault.

For all their differences, suburbs like Perimeter Center and Moreno Valley share one striking trait: an isolation from--and frequently an antagonism toward--their central cities.

For the first time, a generation of suburban Americans lacks an emotional tie to the city, a feel for its life style, and an interest or stake in helping solve its vast problems.

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