Listen to Ann Arborites talk about why they don’t like urban sprawl, and you’ll hear how poorly planned development encourages automobile dependence, devours green space and sucks the life from traditional downtowns and urban neighborhoods. These are serious consequences of a blithe attitude toward land use and solid reasons why we need more thoughtful development policies. But another aspect of urban sprawl will be most clearly evident decades from now, when amateur historians sit down to write the history of their suburban communities – and find that there’s nothing worth saying.

Sarah Royce

All the factors that make for compelling local history are gone from the average sprawl municipality. For starters, there’s the newness of these areas. America has never been able to match Europe for historic cities. But even a 19th-century building in Ypsilanti’s downtown has something that a freshly sprouted subdivision where there was a cornfield last year doesn’t. A sterile new addition to suburbia is so distant from the farmland or forest it replaced that the area loses whatever stories it once held. God might as well have made the land about five seconds before the bulldozers moved in.

This might not be so bad if the new neighborhoods didn’t end up quite so uniform. The houses all display similarly lousy architecture, and strip malls offer the only outlet for shopping and entertainment – a lineup of corporate chain stores that barely changes as you drive across the country. No matter how hard the Applebee’s just off the freeway tries to be your neighborhood bar and grill, it just can’t help to define a place the way Fleetwood or Blimpy Burger can.

But a local history mentioning only buildings and businesses is about as fascinating as a national history focused solely on treaties. Stories and anecdotes from the lives of the people in a community are what make local history meaningful. Yet the people who live amid suburban sprawl don’t seem to care much about their neighbors’ stories, and they tend not to put down deep roots in their so-called communities.

Houses in older neighborhoods in Detroit – or around campus – are a bit different from the new ones going up in the townships around Ann Arbor. They’re closer together. They have real porches. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to picture homeowners chatting with their neighbors in the evening while their children play in the streets. When my mom describes the neighborhood she grew up in, it sounds like this: Her block had dozens of children on it, and the neighbors looked out for each other’s kids. She regarded the woman who lived across the street from her as a second mother.

In today’s suburbs, though, there’s no need to develop such close ties to your neighbors. People can stay safely within their air-conditioned finished basements, watching TV, using the Internet and driving anywhere they need to go. They focus their civic energies on the national affairs the 24-hour cable news channels’ talking heads discuss. Rather than having their children play with the neighborhood kids, parents shuttle their children to and from structured extracurricular activities. And if the neighborhood starts to go south, well, folks just move out to a more distant suburb.

American society, constantly infused with immigrants, has always encouraged mobility. Our willingness to move about, however, seems to have increased over the past few decades. It’s becoming rare for people to live in the same house for more than a decade or two, depriving communities of the long-term residents and prominent families that glue them together. And a variety of economic and social forces have driven people out of small towns and established urban neighborhoods and into any of the indistinguishable suburbs surrounding any large American city.

Certainly people want to live in these patches of former farmland, or they’d stop moving there and the developers would stop building. But people aren’t likely to develop close ties to these indistinct places, and without a cohesive community, there will be precious little for an amateur historian to talk about.

Local history, because it explains the communities we live in, can be directly meaningful in a way that’s difficult for the sort of history taught in schools to attain. Take the time to look at the glass historical markers scattered around Ann Arbor, and you’ll likely walk away with a greater appreciation for how this town became what it is today. But it’s difficult to imagine similar markers ever appearing at the gates of the average sprawl subdivision. That, I think, is a rather sad comment on the cities we’re building today.

 

Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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