Saturday, May 28, 2016


When most people hear the word "disturbia," Rihanna's hit 2007 song likely comes to mind, or the thriller of the same name that came out the same year. What most probably don't know is the term has been around for about fifty years, and that both the song and the movie really play on the true meaning: a feeling of physical and emotional entrapment by your surroundings.

The subject of a mind-blowing essay by Amanda Kolson Hurley in Curbed this week, disturbia is specifically tied to the psychological and physiological affects of living in the suburbs. A lot has been said about the suburbs, both editorial critiques and comedies like Suburgatory and The Burbs. But little has been done in the way of true scientific research specific to the broader notion of life in the suburbs, at least since they emerged in the mid-20th Century. 

Hurley's article takes us back to the time of the Suburban Experiment and its first test subjects, when Richard and Katherine Gordon - a psychiatrist/psychologist couple - initially referred to the nation's first suburbs as a "disturbia" of social dysfunction. 

Curbed and other local and national real estate blogs are great sources of information, but rarely does an article delve so eloquently, and perfectly, into its subject matter. The subject of suburbia is a popular topic of conversation. Often contentious, most people have a very strong opinion about the suburbs. You either love suburbia or hate it. But there are cold hard facts about the reality of suburbia's isolation, facts that Hurley resurrects from midcentury studies, books, and even fishes out of a few dime store romance rags. 

It's an interesting read, lengthy, but addictive. I've read it three times, and ordered each of the books she references. She's harsh on the suburbs, but only because the literature out there is just that harsh. 

What's just as interesting, and perhaps left for another essay, is the evolution suburbia has undergone. She ends on a high note, and a true one. Today's suburbs aren't the Levittowns they were in the 1950s. No longer post-war reprieves for white middle-class starter families, they've diversified. The trees have grown in and - like their urban forefathers - they're full of generations of families of all racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

Like any experiment, suburbia has been tweaked to make it work. What started as a reaction to dirty cities still struggling after the Great Depression can really only be understood in that context. In the thriving American cities of today, the suburbs only make sense because they're already there. The studies and stories mentioned in Hurley's article would have to be revisited in their own unique way to understand if today's suburbs are responsible for the adversity that plagued them in the mid-20th Century. Today's urban centers are cursed with the same heart disease and depression that hit the early suburbs hard. Did suburbia have nothing to do with it, or is the suburbanization of our city centers - fast food joints and convenience - to blame for the back flow into our cities? 

Hurley doesn't dig into the reasons the suburbs were created so much as their ill effects. Following the Great Depression and into the second World War, American cities fell into a deep decline. Part of that was due to a lack of resources, an inability to maintain mammoth structures built by the Industrial Revolution. But that lack was confounded when suburbia as we know it was invented, and the working class began to flee. 

Without a time machine it's impossible to know just how bad our cities truly got, and a lot of it has likely been trumped up by history and famous photographs of breadlines. Suburbia was a capitalistic endeavor. Its marketing wasn't shy in shaming urban centers, a campaign no city has truly managed to overcome. Even in our urban heyday, cities were extremely diverse in every way. There were mansions, slums, and everything in between. 

Those who fled to the suburbs in the '40s, '50s, and '60s weren't living in the Gilded Age mansions we associate with the 1890s, they were in humble row homes and apartment buildings. Had they stayed, had suburbia not offered - or marketed some apparent offering - of a better life, King of Prussia and Cherry Hill might still be farmland and the rougher parts of our major cities could have rebound on their own. Maybe.

20th Century urban Americana wasn't just hit by the Great Depression and two World Wars, but also riots in the '60s and outsourcing in the '70s. Disturbia provides a lot to talk about, and I hope Hurley is up for another article. 

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