The Old Neighborhood: A conversation with Ray Suarez—Land&People

Central to the success and broad appeal of "smart growth" is linking restrictions on sprawl development of rural landscapes with efforts to refocus growth back into towns and cities that are now struggling to retain people. This is fine in theory, agrees Ray Suarez, longtime host of National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation. But Suarez maintains that the continuing flight of millions of Americans from cities to suburbs happened for reasons society has never faced up to, let alone resolved.

To explore these issues, he has written a book, The Old Neighborhood--What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999, to be published this spring by the Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Blending facts and statistics with the essays and interviews that have made his show one of the most respected and popular in talk radio, Suarez argues that we gave up too much, too easily, for too little--gave up not just on neighborhoods but "on the very idea of neighborhood."

If we are going to practice smart growth, Suarez told the recent national conference on the subject in Austin, Texas, "We'd better understand what went into the last 40 years of dumb growth."

Following his appearance in Austin, we talked to Suarez about his new book at NPR's studios in Washington, D.C.

Tell us about your old neighborhood.

It was Brooklyn. I was born in Crown Heights, on the edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and when I was three, we moved to Bensonhurst. Brooklyn covers only about 71 square miles, but one out of every seven Americans has some family connection with it. John Travolta in the movie Saturday Night Fever, Thomas Wolfe writing You Can't Go Home Again, and Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing." Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners, the Neil Sedaka song "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," Spike Lee, Woody Allen--that's all Brooklyn talking. It was a real, distinct place, a place where my mother used to roller-skate and walk home from school, where my father delivered the Daily Eagle and met my mother on his route.

I was born in 1957. Brooklyn was a beehive--garment workers, pharmacists, self-employed people--a range from lower-to upper-middle-class. There was some crime; schools were not perfect. But it worked. There were class differences, from dentists to non-English speakers. You knew people were different, but it didn't keep anybody apart. There was a commonality of purpose, shared cultural assumptions.

You could move up without moving out, as we moved to Bensonhurst. It was a good place to grow up.

But still people left.

By the millions, starting after World War II. For all the old-line Eastern and Midwestern giants--New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore--1950 was the high-water mark. Since then, some have shrunk by half. It was a huge social phenomenon, with terrible consequences for the places left behind. But we don't want to think of it that way. I have talked to hundreds of people across the country about the wonderful neighborhoods where they grew up, how "life was better back then"; but they all add, "Oh, no, you could never go back, you could never reproduce that today"--as if to assuage any guilt for giving it up. In our collective memory, it's as if [the city] destroyed itself.

But you are not willing to let us off the hook so easily?

When we left our old neighborhoods, we didn't just leave behind a couple of cubic feet of empty space. We triggered a huge social and economic decline. We created scarred landscapes. We left behind the very idea of neighborhood, the grid of the familiar, the streets and dense buildings where you were known. I think millions of Americans today don't want to be known that way--where you can't so easily control your image as you can surrounded by a little suburban DMZ of lawn.

I'm not against mobility, the incredible freedom most Americans have to move around. I just want people to think a little more about what they did and what they are still doing. Of course there is validity to the reasons people say they left...for housing, schools, less crime, lower taxes.

Abundant green space is one of the things many people say they moved to the suburbs for.

How many acres of grass do you need to be happy? People who used to live in cities talk about parks they knew there, the vistas, the access to water. My neighborhood was chockablock developed--not very green, but we had one good park down by the waterfront, and it was the lungs of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, our access to the water had been cut off by the Belt Parkway, which was conceived to give motorists gorgeous views as they drove into the city. New York has a lot of places like that, where the needs of drivers have trumped the needs of urban neighborhoods.

Beginning in the late 1800s, there was a national movement to do something for the little people. It may have been paternalistic, but it resulted in the creation of many of the best urban parks in this country. It's beyond the reach of many city governments now to restore and maintain this old parks system, but public-private partnerships have a chance to do it.

Can you ever expect to convince people to give up what they feel is the "good life" of the suburbs?

The suburbs are getting worse, for one thing. The older, inner-ring suburbs particularly are dealing with the same problems of rising taxes and falling home values they thought they had left behind in the cities. They are our next crisis point, and they may be harder to resurrect than the cities.

As they age, suburban residents who can no longer drive are losing the mobility they value so highly, because the suburbs are unwalkable. If you can drive, you get to sit in congested traffic for more hours every year. Government is just starting to recognize the subsidy it is making to suburban sprawl in roads and services and taxes.

Do you think Americans identify with the suburbs the way they did with their old neighborhoods?

It's difficult to do because the suburbs have severed Americans' connection with place. Americans say they are searching for community, for a sense of place. But if you were to be kidnapped in, say, southern California, they might not have to blindfold you...everywhere you drove, your surroundings would look the same.

You write that the cities, while on the ropes, have a shot at coming back. Where are the bright spots?

The north side of Chicago has a lot of very encouraging aspects--public transportation is good; there is a healthy mix of commercial buildings, housing, parks. Pittsburgh is no longer a city of almost 700,000, but at around 360,000 it seems to have found a level that works. The urban core is no longer losing residents to the suburbs. People there were confident enough recently to vote down a so-called "renaissance" plan to publicly finance two new stadiums for the Steelers and the Pirates, and to date, neither team has moved out.

What worries you about this kind of urban renaissance?

I worry that too many cities hamstring themselves with the belief that beggars can't be choosers. Too much of what passes for "comebacks" these days is development oriented mainly to the convenience and pleasure of higher-income suburbanites who drive in for the evening or the weekend. This offends me on principle, but I'm not sure it's sustainable either: to engineer one's city to attract the discretionary income of the suburbs.

Attitudes are fickle; it strikes me as too many eggs in one basket. Suburban America has grown comfortable using the city for jobs, recreation, education, and culture. But only residents can save the cities.

How can green space play a role in revitalizing our urban neighborhoods?

It's important to make a distinction between mere "open" space and green space in cities. In some places it's become almost a default reaction to see potential parks everywhere that's not developed or where buildings are coming down. That can result in windswept, neglected landscapes. Green spaces can bring neighborhoods together, but they have to fit with the way people walk around the neighborhood.

They have to be appropriately placed or they can actually divide people. Palmer Square, a little park in the Chicago neighborhood where I lived for six years, is a positive example--an old bicycle racing oval that has become an oasis. You have owners of big homes that front on the park, and more modest homes going off on the side streets, and Palmer Square brings all the neighbors together.

Do you think it's likely that the big, urban development programs of past decades will be restored?

I'd lament the loss of such big projects more if their track record hadn't been so bad. It may be a good thing that we can't wave a wand anymore and "renew" huge urban areas all at once. It may be better to have to work a bit at a time, to have to line up diverse coalitions and think things through harder before we act.

Land & People, Spring, 1999