“The Sprawl” – In Conversation with author Jason Diamond

"The Sprawl" by Jason Diamond, available now from Coffee House Press
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Of all the books that I’ve read this summer, as a long-time resident of the suburbs, one of the most interesting reads had to have been The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs by Jason Diamond (available now from Coffee House Press). Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Jason about how the book came to be, the importance of acceptance rather than tolerance, the preconceived notions that exist about the suburbs, what ‘the sprawl’ is and why it is a problem, this sort of ongoing fascination with the suburbs and the lives of those who live there (whether in the form of a John Cheever story or a horror movie from the eighties), how his feelings regarding the suburbs have evolved, and much more. Read on to see what he had to say. 

Andrew DeCanniere: First of all, I thought that The Sprawl is a fascinating read — particularly as someone who has now officially spent most of my life in the suburbs.

Jason Diamond: With me it’s the opposite. I’ve now spent more time in cities. My experience with the suburbs is all pretty much the Chicagoland suburbs. I’ve been to a lot of others, and I read about a lot of others, but I noticed a lot of people talk about how much I talk about the Chicagoland suburbs in the book. A big part of that is because I’m from there, but also because I feel like you get so much of the American suburbs driving around the Chicagoland suburbs. It’s kind of fascinating. The good and the bad.

DeCanniere: I wasn’t born in Illinois, but we moved here when I was four-years-old. So, I grew up here. When we first moved to the state, we lived with my grandparents and they lived in Chicago. Then we found our own place about 20 minutes away, which was also in Chicago, but we’ve all been in the suburbs for over 13 years now. That’s longer than I’ve lived anyplace else, and I actually really like it. Skokie is a wonderful community.

Diamond: To me Skokie is the perfect kind of suburb. I think I’m biased, because I consider that my hometown. As I say in my book, my best friend was born in Greece. My other best friend was from Korea. I knew black kids. I knew Mexican kids. I knew Hasidic kids. We could walk to places. I always kind of enjoyed that. I think that it sort of gave me an optimist’s view of things. 

DeCanniere: I think one of the great things about Skokie is that you do have such a multicultural population. There is so much diversity and everyone seems to be so accepting of one another. I don’t necessarily think you see that everywhere. I think it’s the sort of place that really teaches people to be accepting — to be inclusive and welcoming — rather than ‘tolerant.’ Some people have a tendency to preach ‘tolerance,’ but I feel like inherent in a term like ‘tolerant’ or ‘tolerance’ is this idea that you really can’t stand somebody but, for one reason or another, have learned to put up with their existence. That’s not really what we need to be aiming for or preaching to others. It is acceptance that should be taught, and it is acceptance that we should be striving for as a community. I think that Skokie, as a community, is very aware of that and has really embraced acceptance as a philosophy, and that is one of the things that I am so very proud of.

Diamond: Right. That’s been the problem in America for so long. We’ve been ‘tolerating’ people and we need to move from this idea that we are ‘tolerating’ anybody. We all belong here. That’s part of what makes this country great.

DeCanniere: I think they kind of referenced this whole notion at the Democratic National Convention the other night. Unless you are a Native American, you are from someplace else. It doesn’t matter when you arrived in the United States or how long you’ve been here. Your family — or your ancestors — were immigrants. If you aren’t Native American, everyone comes from someplace else — whether you have been here for five seconds or you can trace your ancestry back to when someone came over on the Mayflower. 

Diamond: I think that growing up in a place like Skokie, I was naturally raised with this idea that there’s nothing really all that different about anybody else. We’re all the same, and I think that’s great. It might sound really liberal of me to say something like that — and perhaps a little saccharin — but I think that’s true, and it’s really important. You don’t get that in a lot of suburbs. I think Skokie is an older place and its close proximity to the city helps a little bit, but the more I travel and the more I have researched, I’m starting to see just how much more diverse suburbia has become in America overall. Not every place, but many places for sure. 

DeCanniere: And I think that, in particular, it’s really important to realize that we are all the same and we are all equal, and to realize the importance of coming together — how we should not make any group the ‘other’ but that we should be united. What we don’t want is what happened in Europe in, say, the thirties and forties. We don’t want to allow that kind of thing to happen here. So, we need to remain vigilant and stand up against hatred, bigotry and prejudice — particularly these days, when it seems to be rearing its ugly head again. I also think that the more you are exposed to a broad array of people from different backgrounds, the more you come to realize that you have more in common with them than there are differences. The more you are around people of different backgrounds, the more you begin to see them as people, rather than as caricatures or stereotypes.

Diamond: And I think that, on the opposite end of that, stereotyping the suburbs is not productive. I think that’s sort of why I wanted to do this book. I kind of felt that it seemed necessary for somebody to go ahead and do that. The suburbs make up so much of our country, and when I really started to realize how much of the stuff I’ve been influenced by and how much of the stuff I like — and how much of my own worldview — comes from being in the suburbs, it really got me thinking. 

Jason Diamond, author of “The Sprawl.” (Photo: Isaac Fitzgerald)

DeCanniere: Which actually brings me to my next question. How did the whole book come about? I guess you’ve kind of answered it already, but what’s the backstory?

Diamond: I’d been thinking about doing a book like this. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. My first book [Searching for John Hughes] came out and it was a memoir. I always tell people having your first book be a memoir is a really interesting experience, because whoever reads it knows you — even if you don’t know them. This was right after the 2016 election, and I had this really interesting opportunity to travel for this book. I was in the south, I was in Texas, and I was all over the midwest. The one common bond most readers had was like ‘I grew up in the suburbs and I was a weird kid like you.’ I found that really interesting. We were having these events in cities, and people were coming up to me about the suburbs, and about what it was like where they grew up — what it was like in suburban San Jose or suburban Houston or suburban Jacksonville. I thought that this is really interesting — we were having these events in cities, and people were coming up to me about the suburbs and what it was like where they grew up. I thought that it’s really interesting that this is what a lot of people were taking away from it. It just got me thinking about the tone that a lot of them had. ‘Yeah, I grew up in the suburbs, but I got out of there.’ I was like ‘I don’t get what’s so bad about the suburbs.’ It’s not a religion. It’s not a race. It’s not anything like that, but it is something that unites people in a certain way. I just wanted to dig deeper into why that is. Once I started thinking about it from a certain angle — like all of the art and the culture that had come out of there — I started developing this idea for a book. 

DeCanniere: And you kind of talk about that a bit, as well as everybody’s idea of what the suburbs are and what they are not. Some people seem to have these kinds of preconceived notions of the suburbs themselves.

Diamond: I think that’s just the problem. We all have these kinds of ideas of what something should be or what we think something is. It kind of goes back to these ideas we have in our heads. I think even before I began writing this book, I probably had my own preconceived notions of what the suburbs ‘are.’ It’s so impossible to take Skokie, Illinois, and Hampstead, Long Island, and someplace in Colorado, and someplace in Alabama, and then say these are all the same kinds of places because they are all suburban. They are not. They might have similar architecture. There might be some things that connect them, but they are not the same place. 

DeCanniere: You also say that if there is any problem with suburbia, it isn’t really the suburbs themselves. The problem is the sprawl. For those who’ve yet to read the book, what is ‘the sprawl’ exactly? I know that part of it goes back to thoughtless design, in effect.

Diamond: I don’t want to upset any architects or anybody like that, because I’m not a designer. I went to school for history, and so I look at everything from a historical perspective. Whenever I write anything non-fiction, I’m always taking into account ‘Where does this land in history?’ I wouldn’t say it’s the ‘original source,’ because technically there were suburbs before Levittown, but I live about an hour away from it, and it is widely considered the original modern American suburb. Just driving through I was really struck by how the roads were so wide. Maybe I’m imagining it, but there were six to eight lanes going down their main street, and one small ribbon of sidewalk that seemed to disappear every few miles. It was just so strange. The houses are kind of crammed together, and that’s the root of the modern suburb in a lot of ways. There are obviously other exceptions. There are these gaudy McMansions that you see, or townhouses. There are all of these different places, but at the heart of it there is just not much thought put into these designs. They’re not meant to be anything but homes. I know we can’t all afford to have an architect build our dream home, but I think that there wasn’t much thought put into it beyond ‘Here’s four walls and a roof. Let’s call it a home.’ put into it. 

DeCanniere: Absolutely. A home should be more than the basics. To me a home is, first and foremost, about the people in it — the people who are there when you open the door. Beyond that, however, it should also ideally be welcoming, comfortable and inspiring. It shouldn’t just be a bland, extremely basic box, with one home after the other looking identical inside and out. It shouldn’t be nondescript, where every home looks like that other, and every town looks like the other, and you could quite literally be just about anywhere. And I do feel as though some developers do fall into that kind of a trap too easily. 

Diamond: And it was weird, because I don’t know how familiar you are with Buffalo Grove, but I wrote about it in the book, and when I realized the connection between Buffalo Grove and Levittown, I found it so bizarre. That was just so strange. The homes in Levittown were built in the forties, and a lot of the homes in that area of Buffalo Grove were built in the sixties into the eighties. It was just really interesting to see there was a little bit of evolution there, but not that much. I think that’s ultimately why I live in the city. I can just walk out my door and go buy a sandwich or a gallon of milk. I don’t have to get into a car and make a whole to do about it. Just little things like that would be nice changes.

DeCanniere: Right. I will say that though I do live in the suburbs, I am pretty centrally located, so I actually can walk to the store to get that gallon of milk, and I can walk to the sandwich shop to get a sandwich — but I am also mindful that there are some suburbs in which that isn’t the case. There are communities in which you are quite dependent on owning your own car. That’s not the case here because, though this is a suburb, there also is public transit. 

Diamond: I remember living on Niles Avenue in Skokie when I was a kid, and we could walk to the grocery store. I could walk to school or to the library. That was great. Even when you go to a more posh suburb like Lake Forest, they have one of the oldest outdoor shopping centers in America, and it feels like there is a center of town. Skokie feels like it has a center of town. 

DeCanniere: And I should note that, fortunately, I do think that more and more places have started to recognize the importance of planning more thoughtfully, and of planning — or redeveloping areas — with pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users in mind. I also think that, in many cases, individuals — or organizations advocating on behalf of individuals — have begun to get more vocal about their desire to live in a more connected, more thoughtfully planned out community that takes pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit riders into account. I think that there’s more awareness, in general, about environmental sustainability and our own carbon footprints as well. That’s not to say that this is all happening everywhere, of course.

Diamond: During the pandemic, here in New York I have seen a lot of streets closed down. I think that is a great start. I think that is something they should keep doing well after the pandemic has passed.

DeCanniere: I know they’ve done similar things in Europe as well, where they sort of take back the streets for the pedestrians and cyclists — whether it’s for an outdoor market or for a festival, or for any number of other uses. 

Diamond: They’ve got centuries on us, of course, but they have planned those cities out a little better.

DeCanniere: It also may help that many of those cities were planned well before the invention of the automobile, whereas that certainly wasn’t the case with many cities and towns in the U.S. I feel as though there are many more places that were designed around the automobile here than there. Then, of course, I think that more of a car culture has developed here than ever developed in Europe as well.

Diamond: Well, the suburbs were planned for cars. That’s the big problem. Everyone had an automobile by the forties, and that was kind of the deal. If you wanted to live in these places, you had to have a car.

DeCanniere: You also talk a bit about the initial concept of the suburbs and get into the history. You touch on the fact that many suburbs in many parts of the country had these sorts of segregationist practices or exclusionary practices, which were intended to keep certain people out of those communities — practices that, I would hope, we’ve left behind. So, I thought that it’s interesting how you go into the concept of the suburbs, the promise of suburbia, and how there were entire populations that were excluded, as well as the decline of some of those suburbs.

Diamond: I have this memory of my grandmother showing me letters that she had saved from country clubs in the Chicagoland suburbs. They told my great-grandfather, who had worked his butt off and made a lot of money, things to the effect of ‘We appreciate your interest in our club, but we don’t accept people of your race.’ I don’t have the letters. I wish I did. I don’t believe that country club is there anymore. That happened a lot in the middle of the twentieth century. You see that a lot in the history of America — redlining. We talk up the New Deal a lot, and I think the New Deal was a great thing for America, but it also brought with it a lot of unfair housing practices that were baked into who could and couldn’t buy homes in America for a very long time. Besides that, you had handshake deals and town charters. It’s all very sinister and weird when you go back and look at it. This is fairly recent. I believe Johnson passed the Fair Housing Act in something like 1968. So, our parents were born into a world where a landlord or developer could tell a person ‘No, you can’t buy this house because you’re black.’ That is so hard for me to fathom. 

DeCanniere: It’s just incredibly disturbing when you think about it. My grandparents, on one side of the family, were Jewish and they were persecuted for who they were. Much of my grandmother’s and grandfather’s family died in the Holocaust. I would like to believe that kind of hatred is in the rearview mirror at this point — both here in the U.S. and abroad — but I think as the developments of the last few months alone have sort of emphasized, there still are some very hateful people who still have these kinds of racist views. I don’t think that this country has really dealt with this very dark part of its history. As painful as it may be and as embarrassing at it may be, I don’t think we will truly be able to heal and move forward as a nation until we do. Not to be completely negative about this country, but I think that’s what we’re kind of seeing now. I’m not saying that there isn’t anything good about America. I was born here and I will say that I believe that there are many good things about this country as well. However, these kinds of segregationist and exclusionary practices should not come as a surprise to anyone — certainly not to those who are aware of this country’s history. For a very long time someone could be viewed, in the eyes of the law, as a fraction of a person simply because of their race — because they were black. Let’s just start there. On what planet is counting any human being as a fraction of a person acceptable? From my point of view, it never should have been acceptable. Yet, to many, it was.

Diamond: Yeah. Three-fifths of a person. There were people who believed that. I’ve had it happen to me. I’m a white guy, but I’m also Jewish. I’ve had people say that they thought Jews had horns when they were kids. There are these stereotypes of people — some of them even more outrageous than the other. I don’t understand why people can believe these things in the twenty-first century. 

DeCanniere: All of this said, you also write about how you actually can see the suburbs becoming increasingly diverse — and how it’s often through the literature that is being written about the suburbs that you can see this occurring.

Diamond: That’s been a really interesting thing for me to watch, because I’d like to think that literature holds an important part in our culture. I do think that our literature tells us a lot about where we are, and I think that when you open up a book about the suburbs now, there is a really good chance you’ll read a book about people in the suburbs and it’s by an immigrant or a child of an immigrant, or else it’s by a black American or an Asian-American or an Indian-American. That wasn’t always the case. When people think about suburban literature, people think about John Cheever or Richard Yates or somebody like that. I like those guys just fine, but they were writing books in the middle of the century. So, I just think it’s a nice thing to see that our American stories are starting to reflect that a little bit. You see it on television, too, with shows like Fresh Off the Boat.

DeCanniere: You also talk about how there is this sort of fascination with the suburbs and the lives of those who live there, whether it’s something written by someone like John Cheever or it’s a horror movie from the eighties.

Diamond: It’s really interesting to me, because when you asked about what the genesis of the book was — you know, everything starts with a question. If more questions keep popping up, you’ve got to kind of keep picking at it. I started wondering why were all these movies that I watched — because I love horror movies, especially up until a certain era. Those eighties horror movies I grew up on all either take place in the suburbs, or a lot of the characters getting killed feel like they could be from the suburbs — like in Friday the 13th, for instance. I kind of wondered why that’s such a thing. It’s all metaphors. I mean, there are so many metaphors. Cheever’s The Swimmer is a big metaphor, and all these things — whether the writers meant to do that or not, or whether they were just writing about the places they were familiar with. Today, reading The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, feels like an indictment of a certain close-mindedness you’d find in the suburbs. She grew up in the suburbs. 

DeCanniere: And it is interesting that, even today, the fascination sort of seems to persist. One of the other things I found interesting is how you talk about the whole ‘Save Nod Road thing,’ where a bunch of residents of a community worked together to stand up to a developer who wanted to build houses on some land — how they came together and got to know one another, and the importance of being civically and politically engaged. You also talk about how, living in the suburbs, there can sometimes be this feeling of loneliness or isolation, so I think that those two things kind of go hand-in-hand.

Diamond: Absolutely. It’s baked in. I feel like the act of getting into your car could feel really isolating. You don’t really realize how much time you spend in your car. That’s something I noticed a lot — just driving around these places. That act alone felt incredibly lonely to me. It’s something I picked up on in a lot of places. One of the things that was really interesting to me, when I was talking to the Save Nod Road people, was when one of the people told me that he was living next to this guy for 10 years and never talked to him. He didn’t even know who he was. You could definitely have that happen in the city. That’s kind of the joke about living in a city. You could live there 50 years and never meet your neighbors — but, the fact is you’re probably still interacting with your neighbors and the people in your neighborhood in the city more. You’re getting on the same train as them, or shopping at the same market. In the suburbs it’s different. It’s kind of isolating and there’s something kind of sad about that. 

DeCanniere: I mean that I feel like that hasn’t been the case, personally. That hasn’t been my experience. I feel like I knew fewer neighbors while living in the city. So, I feel like that sort of experience could certainly happen regardless of whether you’re living in a city or in the suburbs. For instance, when we first moved to Illinois, we lived with my grandparents, and they lived in the city. Honestly, it was a small building — there were only three other units — so we knew all of our immediate neighbors. It was a total of five other people. However, it was one of a few such small buildings, and I can honestly say that I didn’t know anyone else who lived nearby. I didn’t know anyone who lived in the building to the left of us. I didn’t know anyone who lived in the building to the right of us. So, you can live in a neighborhood in the city and you can still know almost nobody. I feel like that sort of isolation can certainly happen in a city. So, it’s more about your community or your neighborhood, and how you and your neighbors approach things. 

Diamond: I think what it boils down to is that America is a very lonely and isolating country. We don’t really think about it, but I think the last few months have definitely highlighted how lonely it can get. I don’t feel as lonely living in a place like New York. I think that’s probably why I gravitated towards it, but there’s still a very lonely feeling to America. That’s why I think I’ve always liked the paintings of Edward Hopper. There’s something very lonely about his paintings, and they kind of reflect how I feel about a lot of America. There are a lot of painters who I really like these days who are doing that with suburban landscapes, and I find that really interesting and that’s kind of a new thing.

DeCanniere: Speaking of isolation, and of the feelings of loneliness and that are brought about because of poorly thought out towns, what do you see as some solutions? 

Diamond: I’m not a designer, so I can’t offer up any concrete solutions as to how to get things done on a design level, but I can say when you go to so many suburbs, they’re laid out terribly. Everything from a lack of a discernible town center to no places to walk to an almost total dependency on cars. That’s the big thing I think we’d need to start with: cutting down on how much we drive. The rise of our dependence on cars and the suburban boom line up perfectly with each other and it shouldn’t be a surprise. But that’s the thing I’d love to see worked on first. Things like cul-de-sacs and ugly McMansions are often cosmetic and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I’d rather see changes to how we live in these places. 

DeCanniere: In your book, you also talk a bit about shopping malls, the original vision for them, the role they have played in suburbia, and how they’ve sort of fallen by the wayside (as people increasingly shop online) and the renewed interest in shopping malls (particularly among Gen Z). 

Personally, I did find it a bit surprising, as almost all of the talk you hear tends to be about how many stores are closing. On the other hand, I can totally understand the interest in them and the desire for a physical space in which to be among others, meet up with friends and family — and even to have that hands-on experience with merchandise, which is just not possible when shopping online. I know that, under normal circumstances — when COVID-19 is not a concern — I prefer to go to an actual store to see what I’m buying in person. Plus, as you say, when you order something online, your only interaction is likely with the person delivering the package. I think most people want more than that fleeting exchange.

Diamond: Shopping malls as we know them were originally conceived by a socialist architect named Victor Gruen, which I don’t think a lot of people know. His vision for the mall was more about community over commerce, but it became, well, the mall. If we do get back to a place where we can be around people more, I think that reimagining the mall to look more like Gruen’s vision, a place to be and to see others, would benefit suburbs greatly. 

DeCanniere: You do suggest that suburbia can bring about feelings of loneliness and isolation in some —  or else can bring about feelings of being an outsider. However, you also seem to suggest that there is a lot of creativity there, and that there is some good, solid work that has come out of suburbia. For instance, there’s the garage rock that you talk about. 

Diamond: Something I kept thinking about as I was writing this is that so many bands and movies, books and television shows I love are either about the suburbs or created by people who come from these places. What’s the deeper meaning there? For something like garage rock, which is really the most suburban sounding name I can imagine for a musical genre, it was really the sound of bored teenagers in mostly suburban areas just trying the best they could to try and sound like rockstars, to imitate what they were hearing and seeing with what they had. I love that. 

DeCanniere: It also seems as though your views on the suburbs have changed over time. So, I was wondering whether you could go into that a little bit, and how your feelings have evolved.

Diamond: I understand why people have a specific view of the suburbs just like I understand why they have certain views of nearly anything they might only know about through books or films. For me, I’ve lived in cities my entire adult life, and I believe I took my personal baggage of an unhappy childhood with me into city living and blamed a lot of it on where I was from. When I started to realize I couldn’t blame everything on place, I started to revisit where I come from and how it influenced me.

DeCanniere: Last, but not least, I always like to include what an author is reading (or has read) and would recommend themselves. So, are there any books or authors you would recommend? I know that I’m always looking for my next great read, and I’m sure that plenty of our readers are as well.

Diamond: I’m going to read the new Marilynne Robinson and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been reading Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker. This time of year I love fiction, especially after spending all this time in reality. 

Jason Diamond is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His first book was Searching for John Hughes.

To read my November 2016 interview with Jason regarding his memoir, Searching for John Hughes, click here.

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