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The Good, the Bad, and ‘The Sprawl’ of the Suburbs

A conversation with Jason Diamond, whose new book traces the history of the suburbs—both his own and the country’s as a whole

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Midway through The Sprawl, Jason Diamond’s piercing and melancholy new book tracing the history of the suburbs—his own personal history, and the country’s as a whole—he finds himself driving past his old house in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, just outside Chicago. As a kid, he didn’t live there long before his family’s version of the American dream collapsed. “What could’ve been had my parents stayed together longer?” he writes. “What could’ve been if I’d grown up in one home instead of bouncing around? How would things have been different if this one place was my place? That’s a lonely feeling.”

And so Diamond—a writer and editor who long ago resettled in Brooklyn and published his first book, Searching for John Hughes, in 2016—finds himself back in the old neighborhood. He puts 1999’s pulverizing, wistful first album from Midwestern emo giants American Football on the car stereo. He stops for a bit to eat “a mediocre sandwich at a mediocre restaurant.” And he rolls past the old house, marveling at what’s changed and what hasn’t, pining for what he had and what he never had. It’s as lonely, and as lovely, and as exquisitely suburban a scene as you can imagine.

The Sprawl, which came out Tuesday, pivots shrewdly from memoir to historical excursion to political treatise. Diamond revels in the fundamental absurdity and menace and washed-ness of the suburbs—the Blue Velvet and Arcade Fire and mall nostalgia and McMansion Hell of it all—but never shies away from the uglier and plainly racist foundations of the American suburban ideal. The redlining. The gentlemen’s agreements to further exclude Jewish families like his own and people of color. The white picket fence as a symbol of what many suburbanites sought to keep out. (In the 2020 presidential race, Donald Trump has repeatedly accused Joe Biden of trying to “abolish the suburbs,” which on Monday became a central message of the first night of the Republican National Convention.) Diamond looks back on his suburban upbringing with a profound mixture of pride and shame that you’ll surely recognize if you grew up there, too.

Recently I spoke to Diamond over the phone about how the various calamities of 2020 have already dramatically changed both The Sprawl and the very idea of the suburbs; we also talked about Lil Peep, Target, and the incredibly rad blog Hardcore Architecture, which pairs reviews of ’80s hardcore bands published in the beloved punk zine Maximumrocknroll with Google Street Views of the oft-suburban houses those bands apparently lived in. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

How many hundreds of thousands of extra copies of this book are you going to sell thanks to Trump?

I joked yesterday that I should have probably named the book Abolish the Suburbs. That’s not what I want to do, but it’s weird, man. I thought this was a relevant topic—I didn’t in any way, shape, or form expect it to be timely.

To the extent it’s a real campaign issue at all, is “suburbs” in this case just code for “white people”?

Yes, absolutely, and it’s also a dog whistle saying people of color and poor people are going to move to the suburbs. I’ve always tried to keep an eye on what people who don’t share my political opinions have to say, but I never really paid much mind to Fox News, because I just think it’s all garbage. But I have been paying attention since Trump started this whole “attack on the suburbs” thing, because they have a tendency to regurgitate what he says to their audience, and here, I really don’t think they’re doing a good job of making much sense of it. Tucker Carlson definitely has been harping on it a lot, but their whole thing a year or two ago, or even in 2016, was, “MS-13 is going to come to the suburbs and kill everybody.” And now it’s, “Antifa is coming to the suburbs.” They’re just trying to scare people. It’s just so weird.

Has 2020 in general, either the reaction to COVID-19 or the George Floyd protests, changed your feelings about the suburbs at all? Either logistically or politically, could this be a transformational moment for the suburbs in particular?

The George Floyd protests are obviously a huge flashpoint: I want to see people continue to talk and continue to protest, whether it be in the cities or the suburbs. But I made a point of saying, Trayvon Martin was killed in a suburb. And when you look at what’s been happening in the last four years after Trayvon Martin and a lot of the other terrible killings of Black people, there’s an uptick in people getting more socially aware outside of cities.

Going back to Trump, we’ve tried for so many years to pigeonhole the suburban mom: the SUV mom or the soccer mom or Sarah Palin’s hockey mom thing. I don’t know what the difference is. But I think a big part of it is, that was a caricature built on this very midcentury idea that people don’t get much news from sources besides maybe one newspaper and the nightly news and the gossip they get from their neighbors. But there’s the internet now, and people can read about stuff beyond their cul-de-sac.

We just saw a wave of 10th-anniversary celebrations of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and it feels like there’s not been a ton of music specifically about the suburbs since. Is there much left to say musically about the suburbs at this point?

I’d love to be able to say I’m still as hip to what 16-year-old kids are making in their garages and in their bedrooms, but I’m not. I read a lot about the suburbs around Los Angeles: A lot of Mexican American kids are starting punk bands and having backyard shows and stuff like that. Those songs might not be about the suburbs, but the suburbs are never going to stop producing people making music. But I don’t hear so much about the “suburban album.” I mean, I can see one every decade. Even if there’s a song, some kid’s railing against how much he hates his high school, or some other kid’s saying how much she loves driving out of her suburb. There’s always going to be one of those songs popping up. It’s whether or not we hear them.

I hadn’t thought about Lil Peep as a suburban artist particularly, but of course it makes perfect sense when you write about him as one. Is it hard for connoisseurs of suburban music from the ’80s and ’90s to even recognize suburban music now?

Oh, yeah. I’m sure. For me, I find Lil Peep interesting because, I always joke about this, but I’m like the bridge year between Gen X and millennials. So I definitely grew up listening to pretty much all hip-hop and punk, and then, because I’m from the Midwest, all the Midwestern emo stuff. So Lil Peep, I was interested immediately in what he was doing, and to me, it made sense that he was from the suburbs, because I just didn’t feel like somebody from, like, New York City is going to sample Mineral in one of his songs. That was like, right away, “This dude’s from the suburbs.”

Yeah, that’s a good point.

And he got out as fast as he could, which maybe wasn’t the best thing for him. One parallel I draw a lot is, I read the Beastie Boys Book when it came out a year or two ago. They get to talk about growing up in New York City: “The city, it was like our playground, and I could go anywhere I wanted, I could go see the Cro-Mags and Bad Brains in my backyard or on my rooftop” or whatever. And you could tell in their lyrics, they have all these different sources to pick and choose from. There’s something more limiting about the suburbs that’s interesting to me.

I had never heard of the blog Hardcore Architecture, but it’s now my new favorite thing on the internet. I can’t decide if it’s funny or poignant or what to see the solar panels on the house associated with a band named Nasal Sex, for example. Does knowing exactly where a band lives change the way you hear their music?

I don’t think so. Unless it’s like, there was one band—I think I mentioned them in the book, I can’t remember—one of those bands has a name like, it wasn’t “Capitalist Casualties,” but it was some hardcore anarchist crust band, and they lived in a McMansion. Unless they’re squatting in the McMansion, then it’s probably going to be a little weird. You guys are crustafarians, obviously.

But I don’t know. I think I was surprised to find Pavement on there, because I was like, “Oh, Pavement were sending out demo tapes to MRR all these years back, that’s funny.” But seeing where Pavement lived, where Stephen Malkmus lived in the late ’80s, that didn’t surprise me at all. And knowing what I knew of the hardcore scene and having grown up in it, especially in a very suburban-oriented hardcore scene in Chicago, it didn’t shock me that much. I mean, not every band is like War Zone or Agnostic Front, unfortunately.

The 2008 financial crisis comes up again and again as this apocalyptic existential threat. A decade-plus on, did all that calamity change the suburbs in any fundamental way? Did anyone learn anything?

Honestly, where we’re at right now, I don’t feel like we’ve learned enough. This is all my personal view of the places that I knew before 2008, but going back to these places after the collapse, I’ve seen the effects it had on communities that were going to be the communities of tomorrow. Places outside of Chicago that were supposed to be the suburbs of the future, 2008 really did do away with a lot of that—even five, six years earlier, there were signs for “coming soon” this and “coming soon” that, and none of that had come up. And the more people I talked to, the more I learned it definitely wasn’t an isolated case or two: It was something you could find in Texas, it was something you could find in Florida, you could find it anywhere.

But whether or not we’re learning from it, I honestly can’t tell you. I don’t want to damn the baby boomers too much, but I mean, the suburbs grew up with the baby boomers. And I think the fact that we have a baby boomer president—emphasis on the baby part, I guess—the fact that we have still this these midcentury ideals as part of our core idea of what America should be, and that includes the suburbs, it’s apparent that if the suburbs can’t evolve 50, 60 years after they were originally developed, then I think that says a lot.

I really dug the image of somebody in New York City walking around Target, just because it reminds them of their suburban childhood. Is Brooklyn offering you more avenues for nostalgia these days? Are there too many suburban parallels now?

This is the kind of conversation I’ve been having with people I know who still live here. The news likes to talk about how everyone is going to leave New York, and whether or not that’s going to happen, I can’t say, but when they say “New York,” I think they’re talking about Manhattan. When I go into Manhattan, I’m kind of shocked: “Wow, there’s a lot of places that are still boarded up. There’s a lot of graffiti.” I have family who lived here when I was a little kid, so I got to see the New York that was portrayed—the media and movies portrayed New York a certain way when I was a kid, like burning fires in trash cans. And it wasn’t great, but I didn’t get to see the dystopian New York that I believe existed in the ’70s for sure. But I think when people say all that, they’re talking about Manhattan more.

But Brooklyn largely, especially where I’m at—maybe I notice it because I’ve been here for a while, but the part of Brooklyn I’m in feels incredibly neighborhood-y. Like, I call my little part “Little Chicago,” because there are so many Chicago Cubs fans around here. I don’t know. I could be projecting, because we live on a pretty quiet street, and I can go up on my roof and it’s dead silent, and I’m like, “This kind of feels like the suburbs.”

Yeah.

And I guess I still like driving, which I shouldn’t. It’s terrible. But I think I’m never going to be able to shed my love of just being like, “I’m just going for a drive. I don’t know where I’m going.” So there are certain things that I’m looking for, for sure. I can’t speak for other people, but I think it’s hard to really shed your suburban ways, no matter how hard you try.

This is just an aside in the book, but have you really eaten at every restaurant depicted in The Sopranos?

I’ve eaten at most of them. Whatever is still around, I’ve definitely probably eaten at every one of them. My goal was more to find as many restaurants with pictures of The Sopranos, autographed pictures. Because I’m sort of obsessed with, in the tristate area, the number of Sopranos pictures that are autographed by cast members. It kind of works to me like a star ranking: “If a place has two James Gandolfini autographed photos, go there.”

I think that works fine.

You can’t lose. There’s only two places I know of that have two. So yeah, that’s been like a mission of mine: I just love autographed pictures on the walls of places. And just like I tell people in Chicago, go to the Italian Village, because they have the best—they have, like, every disgraced politician from Chicago, along with every Bears quarterback from the last, you can say 10 years, and it’s like 10 quarterbacks. But that to me is a good restaurant.

And Gandolfini apparently was a huge Green Day fan, so he was more suburban than we gave him credit for.

Yeah. I was really happy to see how much my friends know me. Once that news broke, I got like eight DMs: “Did you see this?” I was like, “I love you. Thank you. I really appreciate that.”