Car Culture and Suburbia in the American Psyche
The name Edward Hopper is likely to evoke the famous 1942 painting “Nighthawks,” depicting a couple of together-alone coffee drinkers in a diner. That particular architectural relic no longer lines every American highway, but when it does appear, it is more or less unchanged coming up on a century after its introduction.
The diner — joined by glowing neon signs, direct-entry motels, and ice cream, root beer, and hot dog and hamburger stands — is an iconic symbol of the open road and its consumeristic anonymity, which is in many ways a uniquely American cultural phenomenon.
I have rarely felt more “American,” in that gauzy 4th-of-July sense, than when driving down an open, empty highway at night. Trapped, alone in a steel skeleton, seeing the road by the light of the signs as much as by the street lamps, it is almost as if I am performing a ritual.
When I was attending graduate school at University of Maryland in College Park, I would often go for an evening drive to break up long nights of studying. My usual trips were along Maryland Routes 201 (Kenilworth Avenue), 410 (East-West Highway), and 450 (Annapolis Road), and of course U.S. Route 1, which transforms from midcentury suburban commercial strip into D.C.’s Rhode Island Avenue. All of these highways are still heavily lined with post-war commercial clutter, the area’s relative poverty functioning throughout the years as an instrument of preservation. During the day, the dreary and aging appearance of these corridors is readily apparent, but at night the signs steal the show, and only the angles and shapes of the buildings are visible.
More often than not, I would end these drives by sitting down, still alone, in a cavernous Chinese buffet, either watching the television tuned to CNN—most of my grad school enrollment was during the 2016 presidential cycle—or scribbling at my notebook, melting into a bustling, eating crowd. You could have painted the scene and called it “Nighthawks.”
At a very foundational level, this all inhabits the American psyche. The American motorist is, or fancies himself to be, the spiritual descendant of the restless immigrant, the gold rusher, the Oregon Trail pioneer. Jack Kerouac’s Dean, who felt the highway’s call in his very bones, was described in On The Road as “a wild yeasaying overburst of American joy.” Driving, like voting and buying a house, is a fundamental and symbolic exercise of American liberty. It is almost as if the average American is born imprinted with some car-loving instinct.
This is not all benign. Consider that talk radio, with all of the ugly and polarized politics it has helped to spawn, is in many ways an epiphenomenon of American driving culture. But that culture itself is, to some extent, an outgrowth of our vast size and pioneer spirit, which are irreducible and intertwined American characteristics. Is a large country like ours doomed, by some law of psychogeography, to produce Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin?
These sorts of questions, which may sound absurd and overwrought, are really the kinds of questions we should be pondering, and are far more important and revolutionary than debating whether Russia “hacked” an election or whether Republicans should be allowed to go out to eat. Pondering how our built environments and daily surroundings impact our politics, economics, and social attitudes might be more fundamental than anything else.
Americans’ love of the car may be rooted in something real, but it has nonetheless evolved into something absurd. The basic utility of the car — not unlike the utility of the gun — is overlaid with much ancillary nastiness and aggressiveness (such as SUV marketing that trades on feelings of power or invincibility), not to mention silliness. It is possible to have cars without “car songs.” And peruse the car names. Some are almost too meta: there is the perfectly apt Chevy Suburban, and the Hyundai Tucson and Santa Fe, named after cities that were substantially the product of post-war suburban expansion. But many evoke the mythos of the frontier and open road: the Chevy Traverse, the Subaru Outback, the Honda Odyssey. If the names don’t communicate the myth, the commercials certainly do, to the point that the trope of a suburban commuter vehicle lumbering over jagged rocks and fording raging streams has become something of a punchline.
The automobile may not actually be an instrument of liberty, based on either the history of auto-based development or its effects on our communities and quality of life. But the car as a symbol of a unique American-ness is up there with the bald eagle and even the flag. Just as any talk of even the most moderate gun controls immediately evokes images of tyranny, any proposal to curtail the malign effects of sprawl and car dependence conjures visions of forced suburban depopulation and Manhattanized slums.
George Will once declared that “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” What’s good for General Motors is good for America, indeed.
So it is that for some Americans, any discussion of the ills wrought by the car or by the automobile-dependent mode of development that defines most of the American landscape is merely a verbose substitute for “communism.” A smart, young conservative friend of mine once listened patiently while I explained New Urbanism to her: that it was a design philosophy focused on building walkable, dense, mixed-use communities in place of suburban sprawl. “That sounds communist,” she replied. She is not alone in her general estimation. Never mind that it is also the default manner of building human habitats before circa 1950.
We forget, or perhaps more accurately never learn, that almost the entire set of characteristics that constitute suburbia—from the population densities to the lawn sizes and setbacks of houses to the features of those houses to the commercial strips that replaced Main Streets and their accompanying oversized parking lots—was a project, more or less, of Keynesian economic policy and social engineering. An old professor of mine, quite correctly, called the Interstate Highway System the largest subsidy ever given to the automobile industry. One need only look at American propaganda from the World War II and Cold War eras to see how little all of this should appeal to the free-marketers who liken urban density to medievalism or “smart appliances” to Big Brother. The reality is that calling New Urbanism and car-skepticism “communist” is more like calling Soviet dissidents communists.
This is not to say that, in the absence of certain government policies between roughly 1930 and 1960, suburbia would not exist. But the history of suburbia, as it actually unfolded, is bound up with such policies. Suburbia was, at least in part, something resembling a crony capitalist public works project. The notion that it embodies the pinnacle of freedom and free enterprise is not much in evidence.
The challenge to urbanists is that the myth of the open road is not a myth only. Yes, the idea that the American Dream consists of driving two hours down the Interstate, spending the day behind a desk in a suburban office park, and driving two hours back to a McMansion is a sham. But there is such a thing as the American way of life, partly rooted in a kind of excited and restless mobility made possible by the country’s vast geography and vibrant churning economy.
Ideas like the “road trip,” of hopping in the car on an early morning with nothing but an atlas, or renting a car and driving to a new city to start over, are uniquely American cultural phenomena, and as such are a part of what makes America home. The city, the Main Street, and the tight-knit small town are quintessentially American, but so are those endless stretches of suburbia and lonely highways, and the cultural attitudes that allow us to endure or even celebrate them. America contains multitudes—as one of its greatest poets once said of himself.
And so while the “communist” slur may be hyperbolic, it is sometimes not without an element of insight. Some of the more technocratic urbanist approaches, like “smart growth,” do indeed have a whiff of central planning about them. There is occasionally a hint of Marxian analysis present in urbanist thinking, with pedestrians and motorists, for example, sometimes substituted for workers and capitalists. Add SUV hate, concern over climate change, and the notion that single-family houses were designed to introduce homophobia and white supremacy into the fabric of the American built environment, and you can understand why Fox News-types see red.
The reality is that even if suburbia is a byproduct of white supremacy, and even if it is a suboptimal and unsustainable mode of development and way of life, it will remain, if only due to sheer inertia and path dependency. Ending all suburban sprawl construction or upzoning every single-family neighborhood is a fantasy. Those Fox News-types don’t have much to worry about.
But upzoning core urban areas, as Minneapolis recently did, is clearly not a fantasy (as John Lennon once put it, there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done). Incrementally improving the Amtrak lines and service along the Eastern Seaboard, and gradually supplanting I-95 as the primary means of traversing it, might not be either. The idea behind Maryland’s Purple Line light rail project, which aims to stitch together places within the inner-ring suburbs rather than simply funnel people between suburb and city, is criminally underutilized. One can imagine these kinds of ideas taking hold across American cities and metro areas, with no cost to “liberty” and with much improvement to quality of life and to the vibrancy and sustainability of the places we call home.
There will always be costs to such projects. A resident will lose a business or a home in eminent domain proceedings; a bureaucrat or contractor will embezzle funds; someone who rode in on a new transit line will commit a crime in a “safe” neighborhood. We must consider and debate the trade-offs, but we cannot afford to encase the housing and transportation trends of midcentury America in amber, and to pretend that the costs they inflict are merely the inevitable costs of doing business. We can invest in cities and towns again, and build better and more functional environments in which to fruitfully adapt to a leaner future. The result won’t always be a Norman Rockwell painting. But the drive and grit this will all require is deeply American, too.