The end of the suburbs

  @FortuneMagazine July 8, 2013: 7:20 AM ET
SUB22 suburb

A pre-housing-bust development near Las Vegas has a street layout that impedes foot and bicycle traffic.


When the United States suffered its epic housing bust, no part of the country felt the agony more than the suburbs. Of course, suburbia and its farthest reaches (known as exurbia) were where the most egregious homebuilding excesses took place. Once things fell apart, they became ground zero for foreclosures and short sales, leaving what some writers described, in near-apocalyptic terms, as "zombie subdivisions." In truth, the housing bust only accelerated a tectonic shift: The near-universal yearning for a spacious house in the suburbs -- a central element of the American dream -- is receding. So argues Leigh Gallagher, an assistant managing editor at Fortune, in a new book, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving. Gallagher uncovers this epochal shift and describes the many reasons behind it. She chronicles the growing distaste for long commutes and sprawling development that have sent families back to more urban areas; the demographic changes that have led to a dramatic decline in the number of suburban households with young children; and a litany of other shifts, including surprising reversals in suburban and urban housing, poverty, and crime. For every generation after World War II until now, population flowed from the city to the suburbs. Today, as this excerpt from Gallagher's book demonstrates, a tide that long seemed inexorable has begun to reverse:

Diane Roseman and her husband, Steven Spitz, had lived all over the world by the time they decided to settle in Westborough, Mass., in 2002. Roseman grew up in the suburbs of Morris County, N.J. She and Spitz had their first child while living in Southern California and then moved to Jerusalem. By the time they returned to the U.S. -- Spitz, a computer engineer, had been transferred to the Boston area -- they had three children under 5 years old, and Roseman coveted the space and ease of life the suburbs would provide. "I wanted the minivan and the big house," she says. "I wanted to try the whole American dream."

They looked at Newton, a wealthy, older suburb, but prices were high, so they started looking farther out. "You get into this mindset that if I'm spending $500,000, I should get a big house. It shouldn't be a little house," she says. In Westborough, a suburb some 30 miles west of Boston, they found a 3,000-square-foot center-hall colonial built in 1985 in a subdivision that was brimming with other young families. The schools were excellent. It was all going to be great. Their fourth child, a girl named Ella, was born three weeks after they moved in.

It didn't take Roseman long to realize the life she'd signed up for was not the one she wanted. She missed being surrounded by people of a wide mix of ages and life stages; most people in her neighborhood were couples in their thirties to fifties raising children. She didn't realize how much work would go into keeping up the house; her husband spent almost every weekend shoveling snow or taking care of the lawn. And she had no idea how much time she would be spending in her car. Roseman says she would spend the hours from 3 to 6 p.m. each day shuttling her children to and from swimming, chess, ballet, Hebrew school, jazz, soccer, music lessons, and more. "I'm in my car from morning till night," she said at the time. "My car knows the way to gymnastics."

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