4 Iconic Parts of Suburbs That Are Going Away Forever
Wouldn't it be great if there was a place you could live when you wanted to be in the city but also wanted a lot more space? Sort of like a mini-city, away from the bustling urban area itself. Like a sub ... urb.
But it's starting to look more and more like the idea of the suburb was just an artifact of the 20th century, because they're fading fast, and it's all because ...
Their Prime Businesses Are Going Away
For years, one of the biggest draws to the suburbs, besides all the readily available heroin, was the specialty retail shops. Clothing stores are the biggest, but pretty much any place that sells just one type of product (or subset thereof) is what we're talking about. Video games, toys, cards, books, whatever. They're all going out of business at an alarming rate.
But people making "Business Closed" signs are rolling in dough.
In the last year alone, close to a dozen major clothing chains, located primarily in suburbs, have either announced mass closings or outright gone out of business. Delia's, Deb, Wet Seal, Aeropostale, American Eagle, Coach, and several more have all said that they're shuttering stores that used to be hugely profitable.
The American mall has been suffering for years. But now their close relatives, department stores, are also shutting down in droves. Sears, Kmart, Macy's, J.C. Penney, and even Target are starting to scale way, way down. Barnes & Noble and Toys "R" Us have announced major store closings, too, as have Office Depot/OfficeMax and Staples. RadioShack is also closing nearly 2,000 stores, but is still hanging in there, eagerly awaiting the frazzled dad looking for a certain type of battery five minutes before closing so he can get his kid's birthday present to work.
Those dads were tenacious as fuck.
In fact, the only retail businesses that are doing reasonably well are chain pharmacies (which are more like big, less sketchy convenience stores now) and dollar stores. Places that tend not to specialize in anything are the only places people want to shop anymore.
You don't need to travel to your local suburb for a less-crowded shopping experience (or any shopping experience at all, if you live in a rural area). You can just hop on Amazon while fully nude and wearing a rubber horse mask and get a backup rubber horse mask shipped to you in two days or less, which more and more people seem to be doing, since Amazon's Prime membership numbers are skyrocketing. Getting Amazon Prime, that is. Not buying rubber horse masks.
"Let's see security do something about it now."
But it's not just that. It seems that what really killed the specialty retail beast was stretching itself too thin. Huge numbers of stores that were run with minuscule margins means that the more they got squeezed, the faster they folded. And finally, after 20 years of recessions, a disappearing middle-class, and big-box stores and online shopping stealing their lunch, the camel's back seems to have finally broke, and no amount of celebrity clothing lines targeted at suburban moms have been able to fix it.
The Suburbs Are Literally Falling Apart
For most of the 20th century, America was fascinated with stretching out from the cities and building huge subdivisions where everyone got a big backyard. You could see your neighbors, but not actually have to talk to them. It was the American Dream.
This is what's known as urban sprawl, and while it's good in theory (who doesn't like to have their own space?) it's a fucking nightmare to pay for.
All those big, distant subdivisions need roads, water lines, sewer connections, electricity, and so on, and all that needs to paid for, just like in SimCity. And don't forget to keep those residential areas far away from the industrial zones so your Sims don't choke on smoke stacks that were built thinking no one was ever going to live beside them.
"Also, how is your monster attack plan?"
Once they're set up, you don't have to worry about them too much, other than minor repairs, right?
Not exactly. Take, for example, the story of Charles Marohn, a municipal engineer from Remer, Minnesota, and his discovery that the sewer system in Remer needed $300,000 worth of repairs, far more than the city's $120,000 budget for such repairs. Since suburbs have a lower population density, they tend to have lower tax revenues, and thus smaller budgets.
They couldn't even afford a three-dimensional pie chart for this visual metaphor.
So he did what we all do: He borrowed. Marohn went to the feds for money. They weren't interested in funding such a small-beans project, so he included some other repairs and expansions to bring the total to $2.6 million. They approved the city for a grant. Not even a loan, a straight-up grant.
It was a literal money shot.
While that seems like a nice solution, it led to a completely different problem -- the repairs were made, but the new, fancy sewer system cost way more to maintain. Since Remer couldn't afford that, Marohn knew it would quickly fall into disrepair, returning to the exact same problem they had before.
It's like buying a huge house with cash and then realizing you can't afford the property taxes. Except with a city, you have another option. You can expand and bring on new taxpayers, but then you're on the hook for more maintenance costs. Those are your choices: Go into debt or endlessly expand. Or, eventually, go bankrupt when everyone leaves, because ...
Crime and Poverty Are Dropping in the Cities and Exploding in the Suburbs
If pop culture has taught us anything, it's that future cities will be hellholes of crime and corruption. But it's looking like Hollywood got that wrong. Cities will be bastions of safety and clean living, while suburbs will be more like Dredd's Mega-City One.
This used to be a cornfield.
Over the past 15 years, crime has steadily fallen in big cities but skyrocketed in suburbs. The biggest reason for that is that crime goes hand-in-hand with poverty, and poverty is becoming a huge problem in the suburbs. Things got even worse with the housing crash in 2008.
So while housing has gotten way more expensive in cities, it's gone way down in suburbs, especially since manufacturing jobs, which suburbs were usually built around, have disappeared and been replaced by lower-wage jobs. But living in the suburbs also does a double whammy on the poor. The jobs there pay less, and living in the suburbs costs way more because of one inescapable part of suburban living: driving.
An apt visual metaphor. Horrifying, but apt.
Since suburbs are built with as much distance between things as is reasonably possible, the costs of living increase in a way that many people simply can't afford. Car ownership, maintenance, and gas are giant money sinks. So what do you do? There's no mass transit in the vast majority of suburbs. You can maybe ride a bike, but chances are it's a long commute. If you're lucky, you can hitch a ride with someone or carpool, but in a spread-out suburb, the chances of someone going the same way as you are slim.
Without a car, it's that much harder to keep a job. Even something as simple as a breakdown or accident can lead to you having to give up a well-paying job for something that pays way less but is closer to home. Or you may be left with nothing at all.
And it's not because a bunch of poor people are moving out of the cities and into the suburbs. Much of the growth in poverty is due to existing citizens of the suburbs becoming poor. Foreclosed homes, fewer job options, and stagnant wages have driven the previously middle-class people into the poorhouse.
What's more, suburbs just aren't prepared for this massive influx of poverty and crime. They simply don't have the social structures and safety nets in place for all the poor people they're finding themselves saddled with.
"Did you try turning your money off and on again?"
They also don't have the resources to deal with all the new crime. Police departments are cash-strapped across America. That means suburbs are less patrolled and easier targets for criminals, making the problem even worse. So don't be surprised if within 10 years your local mall cops are chasing down petty thieves alongside mall RoboCops.
People Under 30 Are Leaving Them Behind
You know what makes a place instantly unhip? Old people. But soon enough, that's all that will be left in the suburbs. Contrary to popular knowledge that people (especially white people) tend to flee the cities and head for the suburbs at the earliest opportunity, now the opposite is happening.
"Great, son! Now let's bike out of this fucked-up suburban nightmare!"
Instead of raising their kids in the idyllic, white-picket-fence world of the suburbs, more and more young people are starting their families in cities instead. And, naturally, these people tend to be well-off (since it's freaking impossible to move if you're broke) and are taking all their tax dollars with them, further exacerbating the aforementioned infrastructure and poverty issues.
It's reverse White Flight, except instead of affluent people running from the dirty, crime-riddled city, they're running back into it. If you see people running from a monster, then they run toward it more scared than before, there's something even scarier than that monster in the other direction. It's basically the exact opposite of the suburban situation. There's more and better shopping, more jobs, better infrastructure, less poverty and crime, and it's easier to get around without a car. In fact, that's one of the biggest reasons that millennials surveyed have given for moving to cities: They're just sick of driving everywhere.
Pretty much the only thing you don't get with city life is the space the suburbs offered. And while there's also the rural option, you'll have to drive even further than you do now to find anything once the suburbs have dried up and blown away.
And so, as the young move away and the old and poor die off, we're essentially left with dead-mall syndrome across most of the countryside and a handful of insulated, hipster-filled glamour cities where the remainders of humanity thrive. Meanwhile, the poor are left to fight, Thunderdome-style, over the scraps of clothes outside the abandoned Gap and over stiff mozzarella sticks in the dumpster behind the empty shell of the former Applebee's.
*Gunshots in the distance, the sounds of a McDonald's speakerbox talking to the empty air.*
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